On Tuesday afternoon, U.S. poet laureates of the past and present arrived on campus to present selected works from their prolific careers.
Mark Strand ’59, the poet laureate from 1990–91, gave a reading at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, while Charles Wright, the current poet laureate, gave a reading of his own work at the Yale University Art Gallery. Both men spoke to crowds of more than 150 attendees each. Richard Deming, a senior lecturer in the English department and director of the creative writing program, highlighted the rarity of the occasion and the prestige of the U.S. poet laureate position.
“To have two poet laureates — three, if [Yale English professor] Louise Glück is there — on one campus at the same time is really a special thing,” Deming said.
Wright’s reading was part of the lecture series called “Literature & Spirituality” that the Institute of Sacred Music has been hosting for the last decade. The spiritually themed poems that Wright read included pieces like “Relics,” “The Gospel According to St. Someone,” “Jesuit Graves” and “American Twilight,” along with more than a dozen other pieces.
In his introduction for Strand, English department chair Langdon Hammer ’80 GRD ’89 pointed out the “suave, meta-poetry” that he said characterizes the poet’s work. Strand prefaced his readings by telling the audience that they should not assume that the tone of the first-person voice in his poetry reflects his personality, noting that he thinks he has a more vibrant sense of humor than what his poems may suggest.
Several students interviewed commented on Strand’s pieces’ “dry humor.” Jon Victor ’18 listed “Clear in September Light,” “Provisional Eternity” and “The Students of the Ineffable” as three poems that particularly explored broad, important themes such as romantic relationships and spirituality in a way that was not clichéd.
Ivy Sanders Schneider ’17 said that hearing the poems read aloud deepened her understanding of them. She explained that when she first read the poems, she did not realize the author’s humorousness.
Caroline Kanner ’17, who attended both readings, said she also enjoyed the poets’ senses of humor in their presentations, noting that both speakers peppered their readings with jokes. But she noted that the poets nonetheless differ in their employment of realistic versus metaphysical concepts to explore themes such as God and the afterlife.
“[Wright’s poems] use concrete, natural imagery as a platform to wonder about so much, like language or God, that is not concrete,” Kanner said. “On the other hand, many of Strand’s poems felt like they were situated right at the boundary between waking and dreaming … giving insight or answering questions about real life through the exploration of not-necessarily-real spaces.”
In addition to being U.S. poet laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners, both speakers are also winners of the Beinecke’s Bollingen Prize for Poetry, a biannual award granted to an American poet in recognition of his or her career’s work or of a recent outstanding work that the poet published. Strand was awarded the Bollingen in 1993, and Wright, the award’s most recent beneficiary, received it in 2013.
The Bollingen Prize was established in 1948.