Poetry Happens

The power and popularization of an ancient art at Emory

Vol. 7 No. 3
December 2004/January 2005

For Its Own Sake
When knowledge isn't for sale

How you package and promote your knowledge is equally as important as how to produce world-class knowledge. Jagdish Sheth, Charles H. Kellstadt Professor of Marketing

I don’t think the basic researcher has an obligation to apply what he or she discovers.
Marshall Duke, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology

The Negative Benefits of Historical Study
On not applying the lessons of the past
Patrick Allitt, Professor of History

Teaching the Teachers
Reinventing graduate and postdoctoral education
Pat Marsteller, Senior Lecturer in Biology and Director of
the Emory College Center for Science Education

Further reading

Poetry Happens
The power and popularization of an ancient art at Emory


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On September 12, 2001, Professor of English Jim Morey sent an email over the English department faculty and graduate student listserv. The message contained nothing more than Emily Dickinson’s poem number 341: “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—/The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—”.

In the wake of unspeakable tragedy, Morey recalls, only that poem would do: “I couldn’t get it out of my head. It seemed to speak to the moment. We think of reading poems as something one does in quiet, private time, and it is, but poetry should also be public.”

The public purpose of poetry—to express the ineffable, to fill a void—is usually clear on such momentous occasions. But the function of poetry in daily communal life is often less apparent. How many of us read—much less write—a poem every day?

Less apparent, that is, until the past few years at Emory, where poetry seems to be happening almost daily. Poetry, some say, is becoming a popular public activity on campus, one that calls the community together in unique and necessary ways. “Having poetry accessible and available is an important part of our shared life,” says Goodrich C. White Professor of English Ron Schuchard. “It enhances intellectual life, and it contains the finest expressions of human emotions, from the heights of ecstasy to the darkest despair. There is an exhilaration at the power of language.”

A case in point: in September, a standing-room-only crowd filled the Michael C. Carlos Museum Reception Hall to hear Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and a poet and critic in his own right, deliver a reading. The occasion celebrated the gift of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, believed to be the largest collection ever assembled by a private collector, to the Special Collections Department of the Woodruff Library. The collection includes rare volumes and manuscripts by Dickinson, Walt Whitman, W.B. Yeats, Allen Ginsberg, W.H. Auden, and many others. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran two articles, and the New York Times ran a long feature. The Associated Press and Cox News Service both picked up the story. The collection, Schuchard told the Times, “instantly transforms Emory into the nation’s center for poetry research.”

The Danowski library builds on Emory’s earlier acquisitions of modern poetry archives in the last fifteen years, including a portion of the archive of Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney, as well as the papers of former British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, Yeats’s Maud Gonne letters, and the papers of other major poets such as Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, Derek Mahon, and Michael Longley. Many of the poets of the Emory collection are still writing and publishing, and they circulate often through the campus. A reading by Heaney in September 2003 filled the Schwartz Performing Arts Center to capacity.

“We have a living collection of poets coming and going, giving readings here,” Schuchard says. “Teachers are bringing more of their classes over to Special Collections to see the manuscripts of the poems they’re studying. Emory could become a leader of a whole new concept of what Special Collections does—it can have a teaching mission and be seen by undergraduates as a welcoming rather than a formidable place. Important things are happening there, and it could help Emory become one of the most distinguished undergraduate centers for poetry in the nation.”

The excitement and activity aren’t confined to the library, however. Poetry is happening in the campus’s most public spaces. In the past few years, the high-profile work of the university’s Poetry Council has included seven “Poetry Matters,” readings open to everyone in the Emory community. Faculty, administrators, students, and staff members alike have stood behind a microphone at the Cox Hall clock tower to read their own verse or a favorite by another poet. The Poetry Council is also collaborating with the Arts Steering Committee to sponsor “Poetry in Motion at Emory,” an endeavor to post poetry in the advertising displays of the campus shuttles, elevators, and kiosks (the first poem to appear is an excerpt from “Moments of Grace” by Carol Ann Duffy, whose papers are in the Woodruff library, with an illustration by Emory visual arts faculty member Julia Kjelgaard). The council is also sponsoring readings and other events, including a panel discussion on poetry in translation in late January.

And poetry filled a ceremonial common space on the Quadrangle last April during the inauguration of President James Wagner. Poet John Stone, a cardiologist and retired director of admissions in the School of Medicine, read “The Spirits of This Lawn,” a work commissioned from him for the occasion. “I wanted to call attention to the Quad,” he says. “I like the idea of it being called a lawn. I thought of all the footsteps that have fallen along that space, and I wanted to emphasize its importance through the years to the university.”

While public participation in poetry grows, many in the academy ponder the questions Gioia raised in his 1992 book,
Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture: has poetry shut itself off within a narrow, “official” academic subculture in creative writing programs, obsessed with recognition from an elite coterie and inaccessible to a boisterous, decentralized public? “Poets serious about making careers in institutions understand that the criteria for success are primarily quantitative,” Gioia wrote. “They must publish as much as possible as quickly as possible. The slow maturation of genuine creativity looks like laziness to a committee. . . . The proliferation of literary journals and presses over the past thirty years has been a response less to an increased appetite for poetry among the public than to the desperate need of writing teachers for professional validation.”

Natasha Trethewey, associate professor in creative writing and a prolific, prize-winning poet, believes the insularity Gioia describes is an incomplete picture. Poets within the academy seek a balance between making their art accessible and advancing their craft, suggests Trethewey, who has taught poetry in juvenile detention centers and public schools, as well as university classrooms: “People inside and outside the academy long to express themselves in the elegant language of a poem. But at the same time, with this explosion of spoken-word, poetry slams, open-mikes, you risk a loss of standards. I don’t want people to get the idea that any journal entry, any expression of feeling, is a poem, because it’s not crafted. It’s not yet a poem. There are people out there—editors, scholars, my former teachers in creative writing—who have an ability to look at the objective elements of craft and try to assess poems of different aesthetics.”

But Trethewey remains optimistic: “What’s happening on this campus right now is demystifying poetry, opening it up. And if that’s not a way to build community across the university, I don’t know what is.”—A.O.A.