Poems, Poets and Poetry at Harvard

Perspectives on Poetry at Harvard National Poetry Month

April is a month much celebrated in English verse, showing up every-where from Chaucer to T.S. Eliot '09. And this April marks the second annual National Poetry Month, a celebration created to direct public attention to a genre of literature our culture increasingly neglects.

Harvard has a long tradition both of nurturing new poetic talent and in supporting academic study in the field.

But now, three-and-a-half centuries after its founding, how is poetry faring at the nation's oldest university?

And gladly wolde [they] lerne, and gladly teche.

English Instructor Nicholas Jenkins echoes the feelings of many faculty members when he says that "Harvard is the center of a flourishing poetic culture." Creative talent includes both the well-known poets on the Harvard faculty--such as Professor of English Peter Sacks and Briggs-Copeland Lecturer Henri Cole--and poets living in the Boston area, like Derek Walcott, Frank Bidart and new Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. Harvard also boasts such nationally acclaimed critics as Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor Helen Vendler and Fredric Wertham professor Barbara Johnson. And the university's Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory, a position often held by practicing poets, is presently occupied by recent Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney.


Non-affiliated poets are also drawn to visit the University. "All the great poets come through Harvard," Jenkins says--from W.H Auden, who gave his first American reading at Harvard, to influential Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, who gave a reading at Hillel earlier this month.

What dread grasp / dare its deadly terror clasp?

But if professional poetic activity at Harvard is flourishing, it's less clear that the student body feels deeply connected to the subject.

"A lot of students are very scared of poetry," says Judith Ryan, Robert K. and Dale J. Weary Professor of German and Comparative Literature. Ryan feels that "many students have unfortunately come to believe that they can't 'do' poetry--that they can't read it, that they can't write satisfactorily about it...Those people...immediately end up with something akin to math phobia--only it's poetry phobia."

A feeling of guilt can make "poetry phobia" explode into sheer terror of the genre. As Professor of English James Engell puts it, "If you're not accustomed to [the technical features of poetry], then it makes you a little scared of it. But then...the guilt factor kicks in. You feel [that] if you're in college, you ought to be able to scan a poem." As a result, "sometimes there is a hesitancy" on the part of students to approach poetry at all.

The professors say that they try to teach their students that poetry is not innately arcane or inaccessible and that there is no shame in asking questions.

"What I want to do," says Ryan, "is to persuade students that although [the analysis of poetry] might seem like a secret skill, it's something quite learnable."

Teach me to hear mermaids singing.

"It's important to keep in mind that we haven't done a very good job in secondary institutions--nor in college, as far as I can tell--of teaching basic elements of the technical aspects of poetry," Engell says. Vendler agrees, adding that the decline of Anglophilia in America after the World Wars led to the decrease of English poetry in textbooks--leaving an educational "poetry gap" which has not yet been adequately filled up with the work of the great American poets. "[That] seems to me deplorable," she says. "I think there should be a sustained effort to present Americans with their own cultural heritage."

Vendler also says that the historical restriction of literature to an educated upper class continues to linger to this day, leading to the perception that poetry is an elitist art form. And Engell suggests that the cultural milieu of the past few decades may have been more heavily "saturated with cinema and politics" than with literature of any kind, leaving even less room for poetry.