Professor talks poetry

“I wrote this poem in response to opening my door this morning and finding that a man had come to turn off the power,” James Pollack ’09 said, introducing his poem tentatively titled “Off.”

Pollack’s remark was in the spirit of National Poetry Month, which celebrates engaging with poetry in everyday life.

In connection with the month-long celebration, Yale is hosting dozens of poetry-related events, such as an annual poetry reading held in Beinecke Library on Thursday and a musical adaptation of the poem “Resignation” by J.D. McClatchy, professor of English, which was performed by the Yale Camerata at Woolsey Hall on Sunday. These productions mark the beginning of a renewed exploration of the performance of poetry, raising questions about the tension between poetry as a private pursuit and a public experience.

READING AT BEINECKE

McClatchy described poetry as a “slow food.”

“Life is cut up into fast food bits that are taken in and barely chewed or swallowed,” he said. “[Poetry] is meant to complicate things, to slow the life down, not speed it up.”

As afternoon sunlight shone through Beinecke’s translucent marble walls, seven students read their own poems.

The poems varied in subject matter and style, reflecting each author’s personal inspiration.

“The two big sources from which I draw inspiration are my life and other people’s poetry,” David Gorin GRD ’14 said. “I play off of the little accidents of language — meaningless coincidences and cliché phrases.”

Elisa Gonzalez ’11, whose poems were set in Ohio, her home state, said she is passionate about the Midwestern flatlands.

“I am obsessed with the peculiar character of the Midwest,” she said.

The format of a poetry reading not only allows poets to share their work, but also provides them with the opportunity to reinvent the work itself, Timothy Young, curator of European collections at the Beinecke and master of ceremonies at the reading, said. Reading a poem in front of an audience forces the author to “explore hidden meanings,” Young added.

Gonzalez agreed that reading a poem aloud has a profound influence on how she thinks about her poetry.

“Making a poem public in fact makes it more personal,” she said. “The message may be opaque to other people.”

Yet audience member Sophie Veltfort ’12 said hearing a poem read out loud can occasionally alter one’s perception of it for the worse.

Pollack echoed this sentiment: “Sometimes you can’t even do your own poem justice.”

But McClatchy encouraged young poets to be persistent despite any frustrations they encounter.

“There are never poetic prodigies … You need to get some scars on your heart,” he said. “You need to feel humbled before the world and to see the world in all its grandeur and squalor … It may be several decades before [students] write poems worthy of the art and the subjects with which they engage.”

CAMERATA PERFORMANCE

McClatchy, who was recently named president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, said poets are generally used to reading to themselves. Yet this weekend his poem “Resignation” was performed publicly because it was adapted as the lyrics for a piece sung by the Yale Camerata, a choral group associated with the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.

While listening to English tenor Ian Bostridge sing a religious hymn that mentioned a birch tree in Carnegie Hall, McClatchy was reminded of a line of poetry about trees by Willa Cather he had scribbled in his notebook. At that moment, he began to formulate the poem, “Resignation,” in his mind.

“I went home after the concert and wrote that poem out in 50 minutes,” he said. “As with most poems written in 50 minutes, it actually took a lifetime to compose.”

To transform the poem into a musical work, Stephen Feigenbaum ’11, the composer of the musical adaptation of “Resignation,” said he attempted to capture the poem’s emotion by focusing on McClatchy’s specific language.

“ ‘Resignation’ uses a tree as a metaphor,” he said. “There are a lot of prepositional relationships. I used the different registers of the choir to explore these relationships.”

Lines sung by the upper registers of the choir corresponded to the tree’s branches, while those sung by the lower registers evoked the depth of the tree’s roots, Feigenbaum said.

After taking McClatchy’s course “The Opera Libretto” last semester, Feigenbaum said he looked to McClatchy’s poetry for textual inspiration. Using the poem of a Yale professor, he added, eliminated complicated legal issues about obtaining rights.

“It’s difficult to get access to modern texts,” he said. “You can’t use them without acquiring the rights. I knew Professor McClatchy and I could just ask him.”

REFLECTING ON NATIONAL POETRY MONTH

For McClatchy, the events this weekend are part of a larger discussion about the role of poets and poetry in the Yale community. Though he praised the recent influx of poetry events, McClatchy said that celebrating a National Poetry Month does have one downside.

“The danger of National Poetry Month is that it might allow you to forget about poetry for the other 11,” he said.

But poetry is a staple of Yale’s cultural landscape, students interviewed said.

The semi-annual Yale Literary Magazine publishes students’ original poetry, criticism and artwork; the group also publicizes and organizes poetry events on campus throughout the year.

Another small, dedicated group of poetry enthusiasts is also kindling the poetic flame here at Yale. Members of the poetry writing and appreciation group YAWP, some of whom attended the reading in Beinecke, meet weekly to discuss poetry and critique each other’s poems.

The members of YAWP said they intend to make poetry a pervasive presence at Yale year-round.

“I think what we need is some guerilla poetry warfare,” Coates said. “You know, like sidewalk chalking.”

McClatchy is a strong supporter of such efforts to get more students interested in writing poetry.

“It’s crucial for students to learn the art now, so that they won’t waste any opportunity that life offers for inspiration,” he said. “They will then be equipped with the tools to transform life into art.

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