Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

Words, Words

Posted: July 16, 2015 in Uncategorized
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By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty


Librarians love reference books.

The acquisition of words is remarkable to behold. Lately, I have been in the happy company of one incredibly curious and eager new reader and learner. A few days back, he asked what “superstition” meant. I suggested we look it up, because he enjoys looking up words (is this a great kid, or what?) He read the definition aloud, after which I provided relevant examples to help him understand more fully. I taught him how superstitions include “knocking on wood” when hoping for a reprieve, and throwing salt over a left shoulder was thought to stave off evil spirits. His pragmatic father added the insight that “superstition” is nonsense, which is also true, and the word means much more. One word can encompass an awfully long lesson.

Flaubert famously searched for “le mot juste,” a heroic quest. What is at stake is not only what we know and experience but how we might communicate those myriad meanings.

The tension between abstract ideas and concrete specifics permeates the nature of words, communication, meaning, connection. The tremendous complexities of words and diction were a recent topic in NPR’s piece, “The Magic of Words.” The intangible quality of ideas when compared to the tangibility of specific examples I typically associate with the duality of experiences: intellectual (or cerebral) and visceral (or physiological), two facets of being, developed and augmented by and through words.


Seems simple enough.

The instability of definition inherent in abstractions practically demands elaboration, clarification, qualification. I start here, encouraging a balance of abstract ideas and concrete example in my writing and writing classes, believing that the best writing creates equilibrium between these impulses. Conveniently, thesis statements and topic sentences tend to be populated by ideas, appropriate space for abstract words and concepts. Then the rest of the paragraph can be “fleshed out” with concrete, specific, tangible examples. I could stay in this territory for weeks, navigating the nuance of implication, the complexities of denotation and connotation. The private, local, regional, national, and global meanings; the notion of words as living things, evolving in content and purpose: awesome!


Follow me!

I ask my students to create a list of abstractions in order to practice constructing illustrative examples. Since college students yearn to succeed, the abstract idea “success” is a constant companion, one they attempt to embody with a college degree, a high-paying job, a fancy car, a big house. Success invades their days and nights, but will often remain as ethereal as most undiscovered dreams.

Experiences can resist definition. In such moments, I pause and think. As I struggle to describe, I arrive at these words: intense, overwhelming, amazing, all of which are insufficient.

Art can provide new names to call the matter of life. Poetry and song powerfully express love and longing, see Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence. The multitude universes alive in the eyes of love, only poetry or song can manage to convey.

As a teacher and student of all things literary, I am in the business of grappling with words. I marvel at their power and writhe in frustration at their inefficiencies, and my own.

All our words are as tangible as the light from the stars; still, I am a lover of words.


By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

The British Romantic poet John Keats wasn’t pleased with science.  In his 1819 poem ‘Lamia’, Keats complained:

Do not all charms flyJohn_Keats_by_William_Hilton
At the mere touch of cold philosophy? (Science)
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line…

Yeah, I know.  Science has the bad habit of making the magical seem natural; the sublime seem mundane.  But, let’s not be reactionaries. Keats died 200 years ago. He made a definitive statement about science far too soon. If he had the scientific tools for looking at the natural world that we do today, he might have changed his tune.

Simply looking at the night-sky can be a magical experience.  But, when science let’s you know what is really out there, and how vast it actually is, your eyes can be put to shame.  Just have a look at this incredible 3 minute video. It shows that the heavens are even more sublime than your puny senses let on. (Warning: Even if you are not spiritual, you may feel a spark of the divine watching this.)

All those stars!  Planets around each star!  Those countless worlds!  And, are you ready for the the mind-blowing kicker. That video focuses upon one small segment of one galaxy. It is estimated that our universe holds 100 billion galaxies.

Sorry Keats.  Your words pale in comparison.

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty.

The other day, my wonderfully acerbic colleague, Ellen, happened to pick up a document at the shared office printer. Realizing her error, she brought it to my desk. She looked at the poem, a lovely one. It is an excerpt from Rumi, the Sufi mystic, which reads:


I died from minerality and became vegetable;

And From vegetativeness I died and became animal.

 I died from animality and became man.

 Then why fear disappearance through death?

 Next time I shall die

 Bringing forth wings and feathers like angels;

 After that, soaring higher than angels –

 What you cannot imagine,

 I shall be that.poeTRY

Ellen read it and said, “Wow, this is really marvelous.”

She continued, “Too bad it’s not marketable.”

We laughed at the absurdity, and I agreed with her.

Poetry isn’t a marketable skill, nor should it pretend to be.

The encounter reminded me of Robert Graves’ famous observation, “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.”graves

Work is work. Money is money. Poetry is something else entirely.

I am teaching Creative Writing this term, a seriously wonderful class for a literature-lover like me. I get to teach poetry! Poetry! This is a gem of a class.

Alas, teaching a ten-week course in Creative Writing requires me to face a rather formidable problem: covering poetry in three weeks, meaning six class periods, equally approximately twelve hours. How can I even begin to acquaint my students with the overwhelming splendors and stark despairs that populate the poetic landscape?

I’ve settled into a reliable strategy; the optimum way to learn how to write poetry is to read poetry.

Thus, I have shared a small sampling of my favorite poems with my students.

For our discussion of imagery, I gave them Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.”

To help them experience metaphor and simile, I offered James Wright’s “A Blessing.”

And “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Another sentimental favorite is Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.”

Poetry is an extraordinary gift, so I send poems along in birthday cards and on the central celebrations that accompany life: wedding and births, even the unrelenting deaths.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Poetry encompasses all. As Whitman says, “I contain multitudes”.

In “Poetry,” Marianne Moore explains that poetry must contain “Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Poetry is the art that feeds on life.

Poetry reveals life, too, often in words and ways that are incomparably beautiful.

Writing poetry means summoning the courage to express human experience creatively. To put words on a frail, white page. To imagine a new thing into being, with the hope that it can, one day, aspire to be art.

It doesn’t matter how good my students’ poems are. It matters that when invited to write poetry, they feel inspired enough to undertake the task.

It is beneath poetry to be marketable.

Poetry is better than that.