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“I have always hated that title, Writers at Work,” poet Donald Revell revealed last week during a reading in Harvard Hall to an audience of about 25, many toting copies of his eighth and most recent book, My Mojave.
The subject of his displeasure was the writing manual he annually hands out to his students at the University of Utah, where he is professor of English.
Writing “is a joy, a pleasure,” he explained. “When you write your poems you should be laughing at the pure joy of being able to do it.”
Revell’s style is often pastoral; reflection on his desert surroundings dominates My Mojave. His reverent descriptions recall Henry David Thoreau, whom he reads every morning. But while Thoreau influences the content of his poetry, the innovative structure of his work is drawn from another source of inspiration, composer Charles Ives.
Walt E. Hunter ’04, president of the Harvard Advocate, which sponsored the reading, says Revell is unique because “his poetry is deeply influenced by his understanding and love of musical form.”
This is particularly evident in his most recent books. Both his Arcady and My Mojave have recurring words and images that act as motifs throughout the book. Within individual poems, Revell uses language to form recapitulation, theme and counterpoint, leading many critics to compare his pieces to elegies or hymns.
Last Tuesday night, in introducing Revell, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory Jorie Graham, his co-editor at the Colorado Review, referred to him as “the poet of my generation I most admire.”
Revell took the podium, dressed in a jacket, tie, and blue jeans. Over the course of the hour-long reading, he presented 13 selections from My Mojave.
The poet’s sharp voice shaped every piece, emphasizing the musical nature of his work through changes in tempo, rhythmic patterns, volumes and pitches that varied by word or syllable. Interspersed among his readings were philosophical comments on life and anecdotes explaining the poems’ origins.
My Mojave is the first product of Revell’s new perspective on writing poetry, a view that he said he developed after reading Jane Ellen Harrison’s Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Whereas before he’d focused on the reactions of others, he says he now realizes “the poet really only has an audience of one, and that audience is the poem.”
This new insight, he says, revolutionized the way he felt about writing.
“Poetry wasn’t lonely anymore,” he explained, “It was the imagination of all these people reading the poem that made it lonely.” Revell now thinks of writing as a dialogue between himself and the poem, a process he has tried to capture in “Prolegomena,” one of the longer poems in My Mojave.
As in “Prolegomena,” Revell seems to imbue each poem with his individual reactions to the world. In My Mojave he writes, “I am not needed / Like wings in a storm / And God is the storm.” Growing older is becoming more aware of your insignificance, he said between readings, it is being reassured that the world will go on without you.
In an interview, Revell explained that although he is not associated with a particular religious denomination, he believes there are moments when you can see the divine essence in the world around you, and much of his poetry attempts to express this beauty.
His political views are aired in “To the Destroyers of Ballots” and “Given Days,” a response to Sept. 11. “There are no just wars,” he writes in the former.
Revell’s personal triumphs, fears and doubts are represented as well, as in “My Trip,” written for his mentor, poet Robert Creely. Sitting in his motel, Revell asks, “Does anything remain of home, at home?” It is a intimate portrayal of the universal question of the traveler.
A New Yorker by birth and a poet for the last 30 years, Revell is the author of seven previous collections of poetry, including Erasures in 1992 and Arcady in 2002. A recipient of the Gertrude Stein Award, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundations, he currently lives with his wife and son in Las Vegas, commuting to Salt Lake City to teach.
This was Revell’s third visit to Harvard. He first came in 1989 and more recently in 2000. This year, he made a point of visiting Thoreau’s retreat at Walden Pond, which he had never seen.
Although he enjoys his trips to Harvard, Revell said he finds the city of Boston somewhat intimidating.
“Boston gives me the willies,” he said. “Just when I think I’ve got it figured out and I’m going somewhere, it turns out I’m headed somewhere else.”
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