“a fluid piece of thing”

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.


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?


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