“a fluid piece of thing”

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Dr. McDowell reads “Prayer” by Jorie Graham, the poet after whom his daughter is named.

What is poetry? Is it whatever we like, or are there rules? What are poets like? How does a poet work? Dr. Gary McDowell of the Belmont English Department attempted answers to all these questions and more in the last CLASS Seminar.

Dr. McDowell argued that poetry is definitely not just for hipsters, pointing to his t-shirt, jeans, and slides and to the fact he had come from feeding two kids macaroni and cheese before driving back from the suburbs in a recently-repaired car to be with the Scholars that evening. In other words, anyone can write poetry, and anyone can understand it and even enjoy it if they’re willing to work with it.

“You probably need to read a poem thirty times aloud before you’re getting it,” said Dr. McDowell, “it” being all the layered images the poet has laid down. But readers of poetry shouldn’t get frustrated at finding some “hidden” meaning–the meaning of any poem grows out of the negotiation between the reader’s experiences and the words of the poem. “How a poem means is ultimately more important than what a poem means.”

Dr. McDowell talked about how he got into poetry as an undergraduate, redirecting the energy he had used to become a collegiate tennis player into reading and writing.  He has grown from a talented undergraduate into a professional poet, publishing two books of poetry (American Amen and Weeping at a Stranger’s Funeral) with a third in press.

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So what is poetry, anyway?

Dr. McDowell read from his and others’ poems, including “Prayer” by Jorie Graham and his own poems “Blackbirds” and “Vegetable Garden.” To understand further what poetry is and why people need it, he showed the scholars Stephen Burt’s remarkable Ted Talk on the subject. Poetry can defy definition, though poets and critics have tried relentlessly for thousands of years to define it. Dr. McDowell illustrated the difficulty of definition by recounting a memorable moment in class, when he caught himself defining poetry as “a fluid piece of thing,” a moment his former students still kid him about, though it fit his meaning at the time.

“Poets are breaking life into literary works. Poets try to lose you in their own world in order to let you participate in it,” according to Dr. McDowell.

The scholars left with many more questions than answers about poetry, but what is the purpose of literature except to get us to ask questions?

The Sporting Life

A pep band? Pompons? Candy and popcorn being tossed to the ‘crowd’? Are we even in the right building?

The Belmont Pep Band plays while Dr. Peetz's assistants toss candy to some surprised Scholars.
The Belmont Pep Band plays while Dr. Peetz’s assistants toss candy to some surprised Scholars.

Dr. Ted Peetz opened his CLASS Seminar with these usual accoutrements of sporting events in order to demonstrate how a sport administrator focuses on the staging and spectacle of those events. After Dr. Peetz’s own athletic career was over, he had searched for a way to remain connected to sports once he no longer played them, and learned the principles of sports marketing in college and in an internship with Ted Giannoulas, who performed across the country as the San Diego Chicken. Over the course of 100 appearances as part of Giannoulas’s support team, Dr. Peetz learned how spectacle added value to a live sporting event, and became even more interested in sports marketing and administration.

Sports fans who attend increasingly expensive live events have come to expect more than simply to watch teams compete; music, video, dance teams, mascots, giveaways, and special appearances are now all part of the spectators’ expectations. Most sport administrators work during events to improve the overall fan experience, but interestingly enough rarely get to watch the actual contests themselves.

According to Dr. Peetz, the field got its start with Walter O’Malley, the famous general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who first proposed an outline of a program of study to become a sport administrator. Ohio University was the first Sport Administration program in the country, and it continues to be a fast growing field. Much of the academic work in Sport Administration shares concerns and techniques with research in the areas of marketing and psychology.

Dr. Peetz’s most recent research, for example, was in developing what he calls a “source compatibility model” for determining whether a particular endorser of a product is going to be successful.  For years, sports marketers have used either a “source credibility model,” which measures an endorser’s trustworthiness, among other things, or a “source attractiveness model,” which focuses on how well potential consumers relate to particular endorsers. Both of these source models had been used for years without any kind of research to determine their validity. Dr. Peetz found that as long as athletes were attractive, familiar, and had expertise, their credibility and even their likability were negligible factors in whether they would be successful endorsers.

The Scholars in attendance proved themselves smart consumers, very savvy about transference and other sports marketing techniques, even if they did also prove themselves a little susceptible to the blandishments of candy and crackerjacks in the process.