University of California at Berkeley

A Watery Education: Baudelaire In the Lap Lane

 by Cathy Cockrell

It all started with Latin. While preparing for the Latin portion of her comp lit doctoral exams in the mid 1980s, Carol Benet decided to save time by practicing her declensions while she swam.

From nato, natas, natat it was only a few short strokes to more and better ways to expand her command of literature to the rhythm of the crawl.

"It impressed me in literature classes when a professor would break out in verse to illustrate a point," says Benet, who earned her PhD at Berkeley in 1987 and is now an academic placement adviser in Career and Graduate Services. "It seemed to be what an educated person could do."

Benet decided to become "an educated person" and stretch her ligaments at the same time. She typed out poems and put them in plastic baggies by the pool as crib sheets.

Now, to six different strokes for 12 laps each, she memorizes Dickinson, Rilke, Baudelaire and other VIPS of verse for the first part of the mile, then reviews old ones for the second. The idea is to go down the list all the way to Yeats and then, weeks later, start over again at Baudelaire.

"Of course I'm not that organized," she confesses. "I'll hear a part of a poem somewhere and skip to review that."

At least one friend considers Benet's aquatic literary routine "the most compulsive thing I do." But Benet insists it is not only time efficient, but a way to truly incorporate a poem inside your body.

"When you're swimming rhythmically," Benet says, "you catch places where the poem doesn't work. You notice it internally, instead of swallowing a poem whole and saying it's wonderful."

The last line of Rilke's "Apollo's Archaic Torso" -- "You must change your life" -- "is meant to jar you." But the ending of "Gedachtnisfeier" by Heine? "I don't know if he gave up," she worries.

Benet swims early in the morning in Tiburon before traveling across the bay to Berkeley. Here, as a part-time academic placement adviser, she provides workshops and individual counseling to graduate students and alumni looking for jobs using skills they acquired in academia.

Some of the workshops are skill-oriented ones on preparing for interviews and writing CVs and cover letters. In "Alternatives for Educators: Exploring Non-Academic Careers for PhD Candidates" her mission is different: to stimulate participants to think creatively and even entrepreneurially about society's large and small problems and how they might fashion a career outside academia to help solve them.

"PhD candidates sometimes have low aspirations," she observes. The task of the workshop becomes empowering them to think bigger. "If you can teach and write, those are skills that translate to many applications."

In her own life Benet has shaped those skills into several simultaneous careers. When not counseling job seekers, she writes art criticism for local publications, lectures at Dominican College and leads more than a dozen book discussion groups for adults -- on writers from Homer to Wallace Stegner. "I teach what interests me," she says.

The mix works. She likes the immediacy of journalism over the constraints of academic writing and freedom from the meetings she finds endemic in academia.

And if carrying so many different business cards has its own set of stresses, there's always Gerard Manley Hopkins, to the backstroke, soon after dawn: "...striding/ High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing...," and the thrill of sighting the first bird over the Tiburon hills: "...My heart in hiding/Stirred for a bird..."


Copyright 1996, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail