Scholars Examine Harvard’s Rich Poetic Tradition

As consolation for getting a ‘B’ on my first Expos paper, I was confidently reassured by my preceptor that T. S. Eliot received the selfsame grade on his first paper, too. In fact, he received ‘D’s in Government, History and Greek, as well as a ‘C+’ in German. After Eliot’s first semester, Dean Wells sent a letter home. “Thomas is working at a lower rate than most freshmen,” he claimed.

In literary circles at Harvard, students and faculty alike take pride in the legacy of Eliot and E. E. Cummings ’15, which prompts the question: What is it about Harvard that makes it produce such a poetic tradition?

UNIVERSITY ON A HILL?

Helen Vendler, Porter University professor and world-renowned scholar and critic of poetry, agrees there is undoubtedly a strong poetic tradition at Harvard, but she argues that it would be parochial to think Harvard had a determining role in American poetry.

In support of her argument, she quotes Marianne Moore’s “England” in saying that excellence “has never been confined to a single locality.” Vendler says that Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman became two of the greatest American poets of the 19th century despite not having college degrees.

“There is no particular reason that any university should be the nurse of poets right now,” she said. “Anywhere there is a library there will be poets.” Vendler notes that even William Butler Yeats never went to university but rather educated himself at the British Library.

Nevertheless, two of the most influential early American poets—Henry David Thoreau 1837 and Ralph Waldo Emerson 1821—went to Harvard, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a professor here for years. Harvard was the most obvious college for the second great generation of American poets. One of T.S. Eliot’s cousins was Charles Eliot 1853, President of Harvard, and E.E. Cummings’ father was a professor.

Vendler agrees that there are aspects unique to Harvard which encourage richness in poetry and literary culture. Harvard still teaches the full range of English literature, which has been scaled down at other Universities in favor of American or World literature. And Harvard has a very strong tradition in classics which underpins even more recent genres.

AN OPTIMISTIC VISION

Don Share, Curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room and Poetry Editor of the Harvard Review—a literary magazine—agrees that Harvard fosters a prime atmosphere for writers, but goes one step further, seeing Cambridge as a Mecca for poets.

“There are so many different poets coming through this campus and this neighborhood that even if you’re just hanging around you’re going to run into everything that’s going on in poetry,” he says.

Besides the more obvious resources and sources of inspiration for student poets at Harvard—the library collections, audio archives and public readings—Share also cites a somewhat ironic one, too.

“You’re talking about people who often have a personality that resists authority and that resists or reacts to reputation and conventional ways of thinking and they want to be outside the box,” he says. “Harvard can look to be like a box, but even that is something that we have to offer. So they come here and they react against something.”

However, that rebellion can push poets away from the school, as much as it can inspire them. Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Eliot, Robert Creeley and Charles Olsen were among the poets to leave Harvard before finishing a type of degree.

Beat poet William Burroughs perhaps put it best when describing his brief time at Harvard: “I hated the university and I hated the town it was in. Everything about the place was dead. The university was a fake English setup taken over by the graduates of fake English public schools. I was lonely. I knew no one and strangers were regarded with distaste by the closed corporation of the desirables.”

WHAT HAPPENED?

Poetry doesn’t have the prominence it once did. Bass professor of English and American literature and language Louis Menand attributes the decline of poetry’s reputation to the increasingly more professionalized study of literature.

When he was studying, he says, more students were trained as writers—now, students are more likely to be trained as teachers. He points out that the English Department receives only book review publications to its offices and no poetry or creative writing literary journals.

But perhaps this vision of decline is false. Share believes that poetry is in an extremely healthy state. “My predecessor [at the Harvard Review] started it here with an Exacto blade and a ruler, the old fashion way,” he says.

“Now, it’s distributed all over the world and material in it gets published in all the best American anthologies.”

He even says that American poetry has become much more prolific in recent years. “When the poetry room first opened at Harvard in 1931 it was in Widener,” he says. “You could have all the books of contemporary poetry that were published in a little room. And now no library can do that.”

Share references Keats’ “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer,” which depicts the experience of looking into a book Keats was unable to afford, a book he had to travel to a friend’s house to read.

Times have changed, to say the least. “We have access to everything,” Share says. “You can make your own discoveries in a way that people really couldn’t before.”

—Staff writer Akash Goel can be reached a agoel@fas.harvard.edu.