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The Persistence of Poetry
White-bearded and clad in faded jeans, a brown turtleneck, and a tweed jacket, John Hollander twirls his bifocals in one hand and uses the other to fan the air with understated exuberance. Deep in discourse, he doesn’t see that the papers piled atop his desk are about to glide to the floor—again. With a student’s help, he shuffles them back to their perch and goes on.
“What I have from you here,” Hollander says, preparing to return marked-up homework to the 20-odd students in his verse-writing class, “is essentially prose narrative broken up into lines. That’s not what narrative verse is.” He then embarks on a two-hour monologue that ranges from the sequentiality of storytelling to theatrical blocking and narrative plot, verbal and physical paradox, joke-writing, mathematics, and metaphor. Along the way, Hollander and his students pick apart excerpts of poems by John Donne, Ben Jonson, William Blake, J.V. Cunningham, Wallace Stevens, and James Merrill.
“It’s a vulgarization to say that intellect gets in the way of the aesthetic experience,”declares Hollander, who has been teaching the subject at Yale as atenured professor since 1977. “It’s just the other way around.” To support his point in another medium, Hollander invokes his own affection for a particular Mozart string quartet. “When I came to learn more—first about Mozart, then about string quartets, then Mozart string quartets, and finally this quartet—I got a better sense of what the music was doing to me and why. It didn’t diminish the wonder one bit.”
Hollander’s faith in the value of such intense scrutiny is shared by a dedicated circle at Yale that includes the likes of Langdon Hammer, who is director of undergraduate studies in English, and J. D. McClatchy, editor of the Yale Review and a prolific practicing poet, among others. Their efforts to maintain some traditional rigor in the subject come at a time of what may seem to some to be a surprising surge in public interest in poetry. The sale of poetry books has increased steadily since the mid-1990s, as has the number of new poetry magazines. Poetry-writing courses are offered in adult-education programs and at New Age retreat centers. It’s the rare American coffeehouse that doesn’t have poetry readings or “slams”—public gatherings that encourage emotional outpourings in various types of verse. There’s a house poet on MTV, and a handful of poets are even finding day jobs as team-building consultants for corporations.
But popularity does not necessarily mean high quality, and Yale’s faithful are sticking to a disciplined approach to poetry as high art. Says Hollander, a Sterling Professor of English who is also one of the nation’s leading critical readers of poetry and an accomplished poet himself: “The idea of some 28th-rate writer letting students do anything they want and saying, ‘I like this about that,' makes serious poets and teachers cringe.”
Indeed, Yale still stresses the careful analysis of poetry and focuses on a simple tenet in teaching it: To be a great writer, one has to be a great reader. By disciplining one’s self to learn the traditions, study the greats, understand the form, dive deeply into the craft, and know as much as possible about, say, language and history, one can expect to have a richer experience of poetry—and perhaps of the rest of the world.
Even in the e-mail age, this view still makes converts among undergraduates. Oana Marian, a sophomore who was born in Romania but grew up near Waterbury, Connecticut, says that studying and writing poetry is helping her shape communication more precisely in all areas of her life. “Since I got to Yale I’ve been a little less sure about my speaking,” she says. “I suddenly realize I often didn’t know what I really was saying when I said something. Studying poetry teaches you to concentrate on every word. It makes you more conscious of what you’re saying.”
Other students echo Marian’s view, saying that the way they’ve been taught to read, analyze, and write about poems in the classroom has helped them with such real-world demands as constructing an argument or developing persuasive ways of writing.
In his role as both teacher and director of undergraduate studies in English, Langdon Hammer has had plenty of time to assess the impact of the traditional study of poetry on a high-speed generation that is often highly pre-professional in its orientation. “One of the things to be said about poetry,” Hammer says, “is that it is valuable precisely because it resists being reduced to the criterion of usefulness, which governs the economy. You can be concerned, in and through poetry, with things that most of us don’t get concerned with in our jobs. You can consider, reflect on, and enjoy non-useful uses of language; you can take time to think and feel, and to think and feel at the same time.”
Those sentiments are not limited to the academic world. Karl Kirchwey '79, who for 15 years has run the Unterberg Poetry Center at New York City’s 92nd Street. YMCA/YWCA, goes a step further. “Poetry uncovers resources in the language that the language never knew it had,” he says. Kirchwey cites Hollander’s verse-writing class as “the single most important thing that steered me on the path to being a poet. Listening to him talk about poetry inspired me and taught me how huge a calling this was.” Kirchwey has published three collections of poetry and often visits Yale to read his work.
So do a host of other professionals. Recent readers include Seamus Heaney, John Ashbery, Gary Snyder, and Charles Wright. In one week alone last fall, students could attend a reading by Whitman Prize winner Jan Heller Levi in the master’s house at Ezra Stiles College, a reading (in Italian) by six Italian poets in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and a reading of Hebrew and Arabic love poetry in the Jonathan Edwards College common room.
Such professional visits augment what remains a powerful selection of academic courses for undergraduates. A total of 21 classes in poetry were offered by the English department last fall, among them three writing courses. One of the offerings is the only course required of every English major, the durable English 125, “Major English Poets.” Some 200 students a semester consume this intense dose of Chaucer, Spenser, Donne, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, and Keats. If there is anything in common among the hundreds of students who for at least three decades have graduated from Yale with a degree in English, it’s that they all probably can still recite the first 18 lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Other poetry courses within the English department include in-depth studies of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Stevens, Dickinson, Eliot, renaissance poetry, lyric poetry, and romantic poetry. These are taught by faculty members who in many cases are highly regarded not only as scholars, but also as writers. “This is one of the few places I know where the craft of poetry and the study of it aren’t divorced,” says Isaac Cates, who is working on a doctoral thesis about nature poetry. “The same people who are teaching you Spenser or Keats or Stevens teach you how poetry is written. You can learn a lot from Hart Crane or Robert Frost by working with the professors here.”
This link between study and practice is no accident. Says Hollander: “Yale has been avant-garde in the past 20 years in tying the teaching of writing to the study of literature. How many people who take an advanced class in poetry will become poets? Not many. How many will end up much more sophisticated readers because of it? All of them. If you can look at a short poem and write about what is there, it’s an introduction not only to literature but to how to read something closely and carefully, no matter what it is.”
Hollander and Hammer, as well as Harold Bloom, author of the recent Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, among other books, are part of a scholarly tradition that goes back at least three generations at Yale and includes some of the most enduring names in the discipline. The Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, author, and critic Robert Penn Warren taught for 18 years in two stints at Yale between 1950 and 1973. With Cleanth Brooks, Warren helped establish the New Criticism, which in its dedication to textual analysis has long been the standard way that American schools teach students to approach literature.
Some people at Yale, most vocal among them Paolo Valesio, chair of the Italian department, are calling for the establishment of a Yale international poetry center that would bring together the University’s resources in the field, boosting Yale’s capabilities and reputation in the scholarship and writing of poetry. For now, though, they’ll have to settle for incremental changes. Not the least of them is the opportunity for students of English this year to pursue a creative writing track, which can be done in poetry.
The academic offerings in poetry extend well beyond the English department, though. Classes in the subject are offered in the departments of French, Classics, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, German, East Asian Languages and Literatures, and Near East Languages and Civilizations. A student can survey the major Greek classics, contemplate gender in the Chinese poetic tradition, or explore the complexities of the Maghreb poetry of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
There are also opportunities for students to read their own works, on and off campus. Kamran Javadizadeh '99, whose paper on the poet Elizabeth Bishop won last year’s Wrexham Prize for the best senior essay in the humanities, recently read his poetry at a State Street bookstore.
Further bolstering the poetry climate at Yale are publications such as the Yale Literary Magazine, the venerable undergraduate journal to which aspiring Yale poets can submit their work for publication, and, at the professional level, the Yale Review. The Review is edited by J.D. McClatchy, who has written or edited more than 20 books of or about poetry. McClatchy also teaches a spring-semester poetry class at Yale and is the editor of an audiocassette series called The Voice of the Poet. The series, published by Random House, packages recordings of major poets reading their work with a booklet that contains the text of the poems and an analysis by McClatchy. In observance of Yale’s Tercentennial, McClatchy is also compiling Bright Pages, an anthology of Yale writers from 1701 to 2001; many of those included will be poets.
Meanwhile, every year since 1919 Yale University Press has sponsored an annual contest called the Yale Series of Younger Poets, in which it publishes promising writers’ first collections of poetry. The contest is open to any writer under 40 whose work has never been published in book form. In a process that has been called “strip-mining for gems,” Yale students help the Press and its sponsoring editor, Nick Raposo, cull through as many as 700 manuscripts a year. These are whittled down to about 20, which are then sent to a well-known poet acting as judge. Among the writers “discovered” through the series are W. S. Merwin (the current Yale Younger Poets judge), George Bradley, Muriel Rukeyser, Ashbery, Hollander, former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, Carolyn Forche, and Adrienne Rich. The last Yale graduate to win was Craig Arnold '89, who took the prize in 1998.
Two other important resources in Yale’s poetry environment are the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Historical Sound Recordings Collection. Among the most treasured holdings of the sound archive are two cylinder recordings of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, reading “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” and a recording from 1888 of Robert Browning reading “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix.” The Beinecke also holds major collections of the papers of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Stephen Vincent Benet, Hilda Doolittle, Barbara Guest, and Langston Hughes, as well as many of his contemporaries in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.
Whether or not Yale undergraduates ever pen a line of verse after graduation, the institutional culture that supports those with an interest in the subject seems likely to have an enduring impact. Greg Tigani ’00, who is fulfilling all of his requirements for an English major with poetry classes but who has no intention of ever writing or teaching the subject, likes the way the form injects an artistic sensibility into even the most mundane aspects of life. “Poetry brings you a sense of beauty and a sense of significance,” argues Tigani, an editor of the Yale Lit. “You read it, you hear it, you ponder it. It’s a different way of thinking that’s removed from the everyday world. The way I read a poem is the way I look at the corner of a building on my way to work and see how it’s hit by a certain kind of light. I take time to wonder what it means—and what it means that I even noticed.”
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