Poetry gets some serious pop culture play (essay)

We may be turning and turning in a polar vortex, with April, or what folks in the creative-writing biz call poetry month, seeming like an impossible dream, but poetry is nevertheless in the air right now. In Walt Whitman’s case, it’s on the air: Apple’s ad for iPad Air, “Your Verse,” which debuted on January 12, includes lines from Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!” — as read by Robin Williams in a monologue from “Dead Poets Society” — ending with

           The question, O me! so sad, recurring—what good amid these, O me, O life?


            That you are here—that life exists and identity,

            That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Two shorter 30-second versions — “Light Verse” (possibly the first time in literary history that the word “light” has been used in reference to Whitman, and a misrepresentation of the opening of “O Me!”) and “Sound Verse” — which begins with “To quote from Whitman, ...” have since aired.

This series represents Whitman’s second starring role in contemporary advertising: a 2009 ad campaign for Levi’s featured excerpts from two Whitman poems, “Pioneers! O Pioneers,” recorded by Will Geer for Folkways Records in 1957, and “America,” read by Whitman himself in an 1890 wax-cylinder recording.

It isn’t so hard to imagine Whitman embracing subsequent new technology. The opening alone of his “Song of Myself” — “I celebrate myself,” later revised and expanded to “I celebrate myself, and sing myself” — marks not only the start, as a number of critics have argued, of modern poetry, but also arguably the start of social media.

If the ego of that I drives and sustains the work, there is also room not only for his sprawling catalogs of life but also for “you,” the reader, who appears as early as the second line. The point was, always, connection: Whitman believed that poetry could heal a nation torn apart by financial concerns and ugly politics and policies (see David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography). To adapt Wordsworth’s sonnet on Milton, “London, 1802”: “[Whitman], thou should’st be living at this hour; /  [America] hath need of thee: she is a fen/ Of stagnant waters...”

Whitman isn’t the only poetic presence evoked this month; another 19th-century giant — the one who said, “I’m Nobody. Who are you?” — has also made a public appearance.

Here’s Emily Dickinson — showing up ironically and wonderfully — in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” in Rebecca Mead’s essay on the Dickinson projects of poet and visual artist Jen Bervin (“Back of the Envelope” Jan. 27, 2014). What an image: Dickinson, dressed in white and wearing oversized sunglasses, arriving in Manhattan among fanfare, being driven to a borrowed townhouse, then shutting the door, pouring a glass of wine, and reading about herself in The New Yorker.

Why do I find these recent appearances of Whitman and Dickinson so exhilarating — so hopeful? Aside from the pleasure I take in finding any mention of poetry outside of the time frame of April/Poetry Month, it’s heartening to come upon these references in the midst of reading article after article on the death of the humanities.

For, if there have been times of personal and/or professional doubt when I wanted to say, with Marianne Moore, “I too dislike it” (“Poetry”) or when I wanted to side with W. H. Auden’s pronouncement, early in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” that “poetry makes nothing happen,” there have been many more instances when I have had to acknowledge the truth that Auden arrives at by the end of that same poem: it is poetry that will “Let the healing fountain start.”

As Ezra Pound said, “Poetry is the news that stays new.”

The news is mixed, of course. It reminds us, as Mary Oliver observes in her poem “Poppies,” that “of course, / loss is the great lesson” — but even in its — and our — darkest moments, poetry continues to answer one of our deepest needs, summed up by a character in Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club: “I wanted to be found.”

That is the secret of poetry’s fresh (psychic) news: quite simply and quite complexly, poems find us, and then they encourage us, as Jorie Graham says in “Afterwards,” to “begin with the world.”

Five Anecdotes:

We are in the car, for I am driving my three children somewhere — in those years I was always driving them somewhere — when my 7-year-old son asks me from the back seat, “You like poems, right?” I tell him yes. After a beat of several moments, he asks me, “Do you like bugs?” “Some” I say, suspecting that he has a secret agenda. Several weeks later on Mother’s Day, he brings me the gift he has kept hidden in his room, his pick from the “Reading is Fundamental” Program, which allows students to select a book to keep. He chose, for me, Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, a collection of 14 poems about insects. I use the book, along with Kenneth Koch’s Rose, Where Did You Get That Red, for years in writing workshops in elementary schools.

It is early on Thanksgiving morning — 3:00 a.m., the dark night of the soul. I am sitting with my father in a cubicle in the ER. He came in here over two hours ago, in pain. The nursing home called me just after midnight, and I told them that I would meet the ambulance. Now my father is sleeping peacefully; I study him: his still-beautiful hands and the striking high cheekbones of his face. I let my mind empty, and lines from Stanley Kunitz’s “The Testing Tree” arrive: “The heart breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking.” And then I remember hearing Kunitz himself reading the lines and how the members of the audience, a good-sized crowd on a warm September day, wept. Now, my father is sleeping; across the city, my mother lies awake, waiting for my phone call.

One spring break, I go to the private facility where my sister is a therapist, to conduct a writing workshop. The facility has a program that reunites women with their young children. I prepared for the workshop by gathering several poems about mothers and children, and then, at the last moment, I added William Carlos Williams’s “Between Walls.” At the workshop, I hand out copies and read the poem. There is a moment of silence, and then one woman asks, “Are we supposed to fill in the blanks?” A second woman says, “Wait, it’s already a sentence.” And then a third woman looks up — she is tapping the end of the poem, the image of broken but shining “pieces of a green / bottle” — and she says, “It’s us.”

My father’s favorite poem is by Billy Collins: it’s “The Country,” the one about the fire-starter mouse, “the creature / for one bright, shining moment / suddenly thrust ahead of his time.” We always start with this. Then I say, “Here’s another one I think you’ll like, and he says, “All right,” and he folds those (beautiful) hands in his lap, as I read “I Chop Some Onions While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice,’ ” which never fails to bring me, like the speaker in the poem, close to tears, and my father says, “That’s a good one. Thank you.”

On another day, I compliment Katie, a young woman working at my father’s nursing home, on her striking new tattoo: it’s a delicate feather, on the inside of her wrist. I ask her what made her choose that design, and she starts to explain that there is a poem that she has always loved. “Yes,” I tell her, “Emily Dickinson! ‘Hope is the thing with feathers,’ ” and Katie’s eyes light up. “That’s it,” she tells me, “that’s exactly it.”

Carolyn Foster Segal is professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.

Editorial Tags: 

Essay calls for humanities graduate programs to resist calls to shrink

As Scott Jaschik points out in his January 13, 2014 article, “The Third Rail,” the terrible stress our newly minted Ph.D.s in English, comp lit, and foreign languages confront when they begin the job search seems only to be escalating rather than abating.  Understandably, then, many Modern Language Association convention sessions, as well as a growing body of publications, have been taking up a variety of proposals for addressing the job crisis. Jaschik mentions the session I chaired, “Who Benefits? Competing Agendas and Graduate Education,” and he carefully articulates the basic positions of the panelists as we were all in general agreement that shrinking the size of graduate programs in English would not be the best way to remedy the situation.  But the reasons we hold those beliefs in favor of expansion rather than contraction seem to have slipped out of view.  I would like to highlight them here.

Let me begin by stating the obvious nature of the suffering: When you defund public higher education, someone is going to have to pay, and it has been our colleagues forced to accept unethically precarious working conditions both during and after grad school, and students at all levels burdened with massively increasing educational debt. These are circumstances we must protest with all the solidarity we can muster.  But all this misery, the sense of lives ruined, institutionalized failure, personal anguish — these horrors come not just from oversized grad programs, but from a much larger capitalist economy that is wreaking havoc on many workers and unemployed poor in and out of academia. As Marc Bousquet has explained, it is not a market; or, at least, it is not a “free market” in any real sense despite our common rhetorical reference to the horrors of the “job market.” It is a system we are caught in, and one orchestrated, it’s true, by our own institutional structures that have now been fine-tuned to serve the champions of privatization, defunding, and austerity. In this type of economic system, higher education has become a kind of laboratory for the production of a precarious, contingent, low-wage faculty. The economic inequality within the profession mirrors the economic inequality in the society. From any ethical perspective, it is a system that has gone terribly wrong.

What has been most missing from the discussion about graduate school size has been a concise understanding of why the market logic doesn’t work for English grad programs, and the main reason is because it is not an accurate description of how the system really works.  If it were a case of supply and demand, it might make good ethical sense to reduce the overproduction of Ph.D.s to meet the lower demand for tenured professors. In short, if you could reduce the supply without altering demand, this equalizing would clearly make it easier for graduates to get tenured jobs for the simple reason that there would then be fewer Ph.Ds competing for the same number of jobs. But the system does not work that way.  Rather, when you reduce supply by shrinking graduate programs, you also end up reducing demand (as I will explain in what follows): our system is so structured that we cannot reduce the one without reducing the other, and that’s a real ethical and political conundrum.

When you shrink graduate student enrollments (the supply side), you inevitably also shrink the size of graduate programs, which means, willy-nilly, that you decrease tenured faculty lines (the demand side) because they are the folks teaching in grad programs. Administrators would be happy to shrink our programs and eliminate some tenured lines through attrition and retirement because new, cheaper temp hires can easily fill in to teach the few undergraduate lower-division classes that some tenured faculty teach.

The gurus of supply and demand would like nothing better than for us graduate faculty to do our own regulating by cutting down of our own accord on producing so many new highly educated people schooled in the legacies of critique and dissent. We then serve the wishes of those seeking more power to hire and fire at will the most vulnerable among us who have no protections under a gutted system of tenure and diminished academic freedom. The system can play itself out under the contraction model, then, as a vicious cycle of reducing supply, which reduces demand for tenured faculty (while increasing the non-tenure-track share of the faculty), which calls for further reducing of supply. To believe that contracting the size of graduate programs can, in and of itself, improve the situation is a misattribution of cause and effect: The real cause of the job misery is the agenda for privatization and defunding public expenditures orchestrated by the global economic system that has been producing misery and suffering for millions of lives around the world as socioeconomic inequalities continue to magnify.

Now, having said all that, I also want to be very clear that there are strategic, local situations where reducing graduate student populations in order to expand funding and support for them, or in order to revise a program (hopefully without shrinking tenured faculty lines), can certainly be the most ethical thing to do.  So I am speaking at a general level of overall tactics for the profession, and at that level, shrinking (without other forms of compensation) inevitably leads to weakening graduate education, not strengthening it through some mythical model of “right-sizing” to be achieved by a proposed matching of supply and demand.

But, of course, the pain is real, and it reaches fever pitch in the transitional moments of crisis when graduate students face the “market” for jobs. The wretched system we endure makes it impossible not to sympathize with graduate students who understandably often argue that we must reduce the supply of Ph.D.s to give them a better chance to get a job.  Under these enormous tensions, the short-term, crisis-management model of supply and demand can especially seem like the only fair-minded option.

In those moments of anguish, which I myself witness every time one of my own students reaches this transition stage, our only ethical task is to support them and listen to them as best we can to help them navigate the transition. So I want to make sure that my remarks here are not intended to provide any specific advice other than the obvious need for support.  Specific situations and contextual demands will have to be navigated with all the pragmatic skills and rhetorical resourcefulness possible. In contrast, then, to a focus on the crisis moment of the job search, I have framed my comments here in terms of a big picture narrative.

From the longer and larger perspective, what becomes most clear is that our system of having elite graduate faculty surrounded by masses of non-tenure-track  teachers mostly fulfilling service functions of teaching lower-level humanities distribution courses and writing courses fuels that cycle of devolution. We need, then, to change the academic system over which we do have some control. Systemic changes can be difficult to even imagine, but it is by no means impossible as long as we understand that it will not happen in an overnight revolution. And the first step inevitably leads us to examine more critically the ethical and political work of both curricular revision and resource allocation. In short, it leads us to a careful analysis of the systemic class structure within the profession, bolstered as it is by procedures and policies, many of which we actually have some degree of professional autonomy to alter.

Of course, the resistance to institutional transformation remains overwhelming at times, and the struggle to mitigate our academic hierarchies and internal class stratifications is a long-term project, well beyond the scope of these comments. To even imagine such changes in our local institutional circumstances, we will have to make many arguments convincing our colleagues that a more collective and collaborative approach to teaching assignments will be beneficial for us all in the long run. And I have at least some evidence that something like what I have been suggesting can actually happen. Where I teach in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), our collective bargaining agreement affecting all 14 universities with a total enrollment of over 100,000 students has created an anomaly in U.S. higher education: more than 75 percent of all faculty on all campuses are tenure-track lines (the inverse of the national percentage average), and all faculty teach all levels of courses. 

Much work remains to be done, and we too continuously struggle against state underfunding and the pressure to hire more temporary faculty.  But the potential benefits of these efforts, I believe, would make our profession less stratified and more responsive to public needs for high quality education at all levels, so that, ultimately, the humanities will become a more vital part of the social fabric of everyday life for more citizens. That is a goal we should never abandon.

David B. Downing is director of graduate studies in literature and criticism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is the editor of Works and Days, and his most recent book (co-edited with Edward J. Carvalho) is Academic Freedom in the Post-9/11 Era. 

Poem of application for a tenure-track position

D. Gilson appeals to the search committee.

Ad keywords: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 

Businesses pay British professor to teach them about Wordsworth

Smart Title: 

Businesses pay a professor for insights they can gain from the Romantic poet.

Honoring a Lost Poetic Voice

The recent death of the former Cornell University poet Reginald Shepherd to cancer at the age of 45 affected me personally, although I never met him. We had corresponded a fair bit by e-mail and I had recently donated the funds to bring him to speak and read out this way, at the University of Oregon. That cannot happen now, but arrangements are under way to use those funds and additional donations to establish a student poetry prize in his memory at Oregon.

Those of us who are working on the Reginald Shepherd Prize are starting to ask the questions that inevitably arise: What does it mean to honor a poet, and how can that unique gift, poetic voice, be properly set forth for purposes of establishing criteria for a student prize?

It is easy enough to honor a historian with a prize celebrating new work in that field, or a particle physicist by establishing the Quark Jockey of the Year or some similar clearly related award. But how should we set the criteria for a prize honoring the life and work of a poet? Unless that poet writes about one thing or only in a single form, the life, the work and the “voice” are all quite varied. We’re moving words around to come up with something like “poetry that honors the classical and modern traditions with precision and beauty.” It’s still a work in progress.

Reginald’s work -- though we never met, he always signed with his first name -- was certainly borne aloft on the great wings of candor, so we can’t have any winners who waffle, fudge or hide the toys. Nor can we have mere diction-divers who, upon surfacing, scatter words here and there to see what happens -- one of Reginald’s mentors, the great science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, would eat us alive if we honored something sloppy. Yet if we offered the prize to a student poet whose work displayed, say, “infrared fire burning through visible passion,” who is to say what the winner’s work looks like?

I once described Reginald’s work in a review as having “intense volcanic roiling,” but I’m not sure that helps guide a student writer. There are similarities between describing poetry and describing wine: “the poems displayed a rich essence of marinated cedar overlaid with fresh Wensleydale, with thistles of filbert and turpentine sparkling through a haze of windblown borax.”

Should we honor his breadth of emotion, which in turn reflected the life of a black gay man growing up in the Bronx and eventually passing through Bennington, Brown, the University of Iowa and Cornell? Sure, but emotion is a genus, not a species. We all see and feel differently. Poetic emotion can appear in the urbane scrollwork of J. D. McClatchy, the high church pointillism of Carl Phillips, the mythic immersions of Cameron La Follette, the whisper-forest of W. S. Merwin.

It is sometimes easier to describe what a poet didn’t do and didn’t like rather than to classify his work into a poetic taxonomy. There were no pallid stones in Reginald’s work, he never attempted to leap chasms on melting wings of assumption, he had no time for the poetry of pathological personalism, he recognized that after a certain point economy of expression becomes chastity of imagination, he had no allergy to facts and he wasn’t about to geld any lilies merely because critics preferred parsnips -- let the lilies show their stuff.

Reginald was a remarkable correspondent. He is the only person with whom I intentionally saved an entire e-correspondence (will there be collections of letters published, ever again?). Perhaps that was a premonition that it would end too soon. One example of how many subjects could gracefully occupy a small space in his writing is:

“If I ever find out what ‘emo’ means, I will let you know. I did a reading at Columbia

University week before last and asked some of the students there, but didn't get a clear answer. I think it's music by “sensitive” but definitely straight boys who play guitar and may or may not wear eyeliner. Fall Out Boy seems to have something to do with it.

I too came across Aqualung by accident, having seen "Pressure Suit" (from his second U.S. album) on TV and then backtracked to his first U.S. album (which is a compilation of two UK albums, which I might try to track down). I adore "Strange and Beautiful" and also "Falling Out of Love," as well as "Good Times Gonna Come" and "Another Little Hole."

That's a good point about my colonization being the problem to begin with. Damned imperialist cancer! And now I'm partially decolonized. Does that mean I'm a dominion or a commonwealth or something, like Puerto Rico?”

Ultimately, his published work demonstrated with sometimes painful clarity the great canyon between those who play the instrument and those who play the music. Reginald Shepherd played the music as well as anyone, and that’s what we’d like our prize winners to do as well.

Reginald has now gone on what Theodore Roethke called “the long and terrible way,” and we who remain can honor him best by never forgetting what he really stood for: no halfway house for the intellect, no auto-referential academic priapism. The best, always, or why bother? In Orpheus in the Bronx he noted that there is a mainstream of American poetry, “broad, sluggish and muddy” that offered “convenient epiphanies in prosaic anecdotes not interesting or shapely enough to be short stories.”

His own work, issued to date in five collections, is never sluggish or muddy, and we will expressly forbid glutinous turbidity when the prize is first awarded in 2009. Instead we will require purity, light, joy and truth of the kind that he displayed in one of his masterpieces, "You, Therefore," included in his 2007 collection Fata Morgana (Pittsburgh) and dedicated to his partner, Robert Philen of the University of Western Florida, which begins:

You are like me, you will die, too, but not today:
you, incommensurate, therefore the hours shine…

and ends:

… home is nowhere, therefore you,
a kind of dwell and welcome, song after all,
and free of any eden we can name.

Let us recall Elliott Coues’s definition of genius as “that union of passion and patience which bears fruit unknown to passion alone; to patience alone impossible.” Reginald’s passionate genius outraced his patience as his illness progressed, and we are fortunate in that at least one posthumous collection will appear.

In the final essay in Orpheus, he answered the question “Why I Write” by saying “I write because I want to live forever.” The blooms of his genius are exsanguinated, but we can honor their living colors forever with as many Reginald Shepherd Prizes and other joys as those of us who knew him can imagine. Reginald once sent me an e-mail addressed to “Sunshine” and concluded with “Goodnight, sweet prince,” but even that one ended with his unique good-bye, so with his words I must say my good-bye: “peace and poetry” forever, my unmet friend.

Alan Contreras
Author's email: 

Alan Contreras works for the State of Oregon. His views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

Speaking Through Verse

About a month after beginning my presidency here, I addressed a gathering of alumni at a site on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, for which our University is named. It is a beautiful sight, and on that magnificent evening, I abandoned for a few moments my talking points. The Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which I knew by heart, came to mind, so I recited it, thinking it would connect me with my fellow Laurentians, and connect us all to the location. An excerpt:

I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I was pleased at the positive reception my impromptu recitation received on that summer night, so I decided to carry with me poems appropriate for other, similar occasions, poems that would help alumni and others connect with the University in a new way. I rediscovered poetry as an undergraduate, and am at the tail end of a generation that memorized certain poems, like “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “O Captain! My Captain!” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

So it was gratifying to find the audience so receptive. I enjoy weaving the selection into thoughts about the university today. It brings back a time when poetry was a larger part of life. It’s a way for people to hear something they don’t hear during their work day, something different from the press of business or the political swirl of the moment.

And for me, it’s a way to keep St. Lawrence centered in the lives of alumni, as verse paints a more vivid picture of their days in college.

For example, I like poems like “Chapter 1,” by Mark Aiello, or “Student” by the American Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, because they speak to what it’s like to be young and a college student. I have used both at alumni gatherings and at events where parents are present. Here is the latter poem:

The green shell of his backpack makes him lean
into wave after wave of responsibility,
and he swings his stiff arms and cupped hands,
paddling ahead. He has extended his neck
to its full length, and his chin, hard as a beak,
breaks the surf. He's got his baseball cap on
backward as up he crawls, out of the froth
of a hangover and onto the sand of the future,
and lumbers, heavy with hope, into the library

We want alumni to identify with the university today, so I look for poems that highlight traditions or things generations of students have in common. Certainly, winters in Canton, N.Y., have changed little over the years, so there is no better way to help alumni bring back that experience than by reciting “January," by the Maine native Baron Wormser, whose verses, such as, “The two best things in this world, were hot coffee and winter sunrises,” certainly evoke memories of our North Country.

I am always articulating the value of the liberal arts, and alumni today need to be reminded why we remain so deeply committed to this form of learning. “The Three Goals,” by David Budbill, speaks to this brilliantly:

The first goal is to see the thing itself
in and for itself, to see it simply and clearly
for what it is.
No symbolism, please.

The second goal is to see each individual thing
as unified, as one, with all the other
ten thousand things.
In this regard, a little wine helps a lot.

The third goal is to grasp the first and the second goals,
to see the universal and the particular,
Regarding this one, call me when you get it.

My readings also bring out suggestions from alumni with literary interests. One alumnus recommended I use the poem “The Lanyard” for commencement, but I think it would resonate at other times, too. Not only is it about a boy making a lanyard at a summer camp in the Adirondacks, but it also offers the perfect tribute to parents -- in this case to mothers -- for all they have done for their children. Every commencement speaker urges graduates to thank their parents for their sacrifices, but none do so as eloquently as this Billy Collins poem. Again, an excerpt:

Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift -- not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

I think that reading a poem when speaking for the university works well because audiences listen differently to verse; they may even pay closer attention. But it also is, I believe, because poetry goes to the heart more than the head, and that, after all, is where one’s alma mater lives.

William L. Fox
Author's email: 

William L. Fox is president of St. Lawrence University, in Canton, N.Y.

Valentine's Day Help

Smart Title: 

We asked some of our favorite poetry professors -- many of them poets themselves -- for verses of love academics might want to recite for their Valentines. We hope some of their ideas may inspire.

A Meeting of Humanistic Minds

Smart Title: 
Session on state of the humanities emphasizes solutions and humor over hand wringing.

Rethinking Tenure -- and Much More

Smart Title: 
MLA's new analysis has potentially dramatic implications for graduate education, hiring, promotion, scholarship, publishing and technology.

Banned in Akron

Smart Title: 
Administrators bar selection of noted writer's work for freshmen to read because he was once in jail.


Subscribe to RSS - Poetry
Back to Top