Y'all are going to laugh at me because I have to say 'peewit' and 'curlew,'" Kendall Robertson says, shaking her head. The Duke senior sits in the front row of a small lecture hall in the Social Sciences Building on a Thursday evening. She is surrounded by other members of Professor George Gopen's "Reading Poetry Aloud" seminar, all preparing to participate in an end-of-semester public poetry reading. Behind them is a sparse gathering of students, consisting mainly of roommates and close friends. The students wonder whether anyone else will show. "We should have made it a Facebook event," sophomore Laura Hoover says. Several others nod.
But over the next several minutes, the door opens again and again. By the time seven o'clock rolls around, there are more than thirty people in the audience, including eleven class members. More will come in late, bringing the total to almost forty.
Gopen enters at five of seven in a black suit with yellow shirt and tie, a fresh haircut, and a stack of handouts, which he begins to pass out to the crowd. At seven, he steps to the podium. He wishes everyone good evening, adding, "For those who've been dragooned into this evening, I trust you will find some enjoyment in it."
He gives a short but colorful speech introducing each of the three poets whose work will be read tonight. There's W.B. Yeats, "who used to be one of the top two or three poets that everyone read but now seems to be fading off into the mist somewhat"; Edwin Arlington Robinson, the first Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and a favorite of Theodore Roosevelt who was only "displaced from the number-one spot" during his time by Robert Frost; and Elizabeth Bishop, a Midwesterner who wrote "intimate poems about things she's seen, and people she's known." He'll let the students introduce themselves. "At about four minutes apiece," he says, "I give you the students of English 173, beginning with Eric Jones."
One by one the students step to the podium to read one, two, three, four poems. It's a chilly December night, and the combination of wind outside and noisy central heat inside makes the softer voices hard to hear.
Some are better than others, though all are surprisingly good after a semester of in-class reading and two intensive practices with Gopen. Cindy Blohm, a senior, gives a moving rendition of Yeats' "Three Songs to the One Burden," which is, in effect, three separate poems delivered from three perspectives, all with the same refrain, "From mountain to mountain ride the fierce horsemen." The first is strong and haughty; the second meek; the third melancholy. Blohm's voice rises and falls with the mood.
Before Robertson gets up to read Yeats' "The Withering of the Boughs," she explains to the audience that "peewit" and "curlew" are types of birds.
Gopen sits off to the side. Like other audience members, he follows along with the handout. Occasionally he steps forward to add a thought about a particular poem or poet.
Gopen came to Duke in 1985 to start the University Writing Program. He holds a J.D. and a Ph.D. in English, both from Harvard University, and is fond of saying things like, "There are only three types of texts I can think of where even as you see it coming, you know you're going to have to mull it over and read into it several meanings: statutes, contracts, and poems." He believes the study of poetry is important to understanding language.
"A poem can have different interpretations," he says. "What it's saying is: Here's a text; how many ways can you interpret it?"
At Duke, he has made a name for himself outside Trinity College by teaching writing workshops geared toward faculty members and researchers in medicine and the sciences. He estimates that in twenty-two years he's taught more than 6,000 people.
In undergraduate classes, he delights in students' readings of Shakespeare, Robinson, and Bishop but finds it difficult to resist jumping in with his own theatrical interpretation. That captivates the students even more. Asked why he chose to take Gopen's class, senior Alex Apple says, "I had heard Professor Gopen speak before."
The "Reading Poetry Aloud" seminar took root five years ago. Gopen had a graduate student in the master's of teaching program who, he says, was "one of the best rhetorical analysts" of poetry he has yet encountered. But when Gopen heard her read aloud, he was shocked. She was, in a word, "awful," and he was concerned that her teaching would suffer.
He arranged to tutor her in reading aloud. They met six times, three to four hours per meeting. The first three sessions were devoted to Shakespeare's sonnets, and the last three to the "To be or not to be" monologue from Hamlet. That speech remains a pillar of the class today.
Gopen readily admits that the class is "a disguised rhetorical-analysis-of-poetry class," one of several seminars on that topic that he teaches on a rotating basis. He insists that new approaches are essential. The teaching of poetry has declined greatly over the twenty-two years he has been at Duke, he says. He attributes the shift partly to the rise, beginning in the 1970s, of Literary Theory (Post-Structuralism and the New Historicism, for example), which redirected the emphasis New Criticism had placed on the close textual analysis of form and structure.
In the past, he says, students were "exposed to Beowulf, Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Browning. You could go through the centuries and list the poets an educated person would have been expected to know." That's not the case anymore. Undergraduates and, to an even greater extent, graduate students are no longer required by the academy to study poetry, he says. He says writers like Spenser, once an essential part of any curriculum, have now virtually disappeared from reading lists.
James Applewhite '58, a professor of English and the author of ten books of poetry, would tend to agree. Sitting at home, working on a Christmas poem, he says that there are several good professors of medieval literature and poetry at Duke, but that the focus of the department, like others nationwide, is elsewhere. "The new emphasis in scholarship is what might be called cultural studies, where you're trying to delineate, let's say, demographic changes in the eighteenth century, where the English government used and abused the industrial-era population for the benefit of a colonial empire," he says.
"Well, that's a valid point to make. It's interesting to people who are studying history. But if I'm reading Wordsworth's 'Discharged Soldier,' [about] a person who has been used and abused, caught in some tropical war as part of eighteenth-century imperialism, I'm interested in the poem, the blank verse, the description of meeting this preternaturally tall figure in the darkness."
He makes the case for poetry: "When I'm reading the front page of The New York Times ... my blood pressure goes up. There are problems and there are not answers. But when I read the arts page, I hear about a new museum, a new play. My blood pressure goes down." Art, he says, makes order.
"Auden writes, 'For poetry makes nothing happen: It survives in the valley of its making where executives would never want to tamper.' Well, that pretty much says it. Modern-day English departments are not satisfied with something that makes nothing happen," he says. "My view is that for literature to be literature, it ought to be allowed to let nothing happen."
Of course, that's not to say that poetry has completely disappeared from campus. On the contrary, it thrives in enclaves. The Rare Book Room has readings. A student group holds regular "Literature Out Loud" nights dedicated to classical works. The arts dorm holds open-mike nights several times a semester and, in the fall, hosted an "arts showcase" where freshman Tracy Gold was awarded a $50 prize for the best original poetry reading. Senior Ragini Srinivasan, editor of The Archive, says that about three-fourths of the eighty submissions she received for this past fall's edition of the campus literary magazine were original poetry.
"If you like poetry, it will become part of your life here," says Hiram Rogers, a senior English major whose honors thesis combines original poetry and photography. "One of my favorite things to do is get together with friends, get some poems together, ones we've written or ones we just like, break out some coffee and a hookah and sit in an apartment and read, dump on each others' poetry, praise it."
Back in the Social Sciences Building, polite applause has ruled the evening. Sophomore David Thian approaches the front of the hall. He's the last reader of the evening. "I had no idea I was going to be last," he tells the crowd. The evening's program indicates that he will be reading Bishop's "Sestina," then finishing with her "Filling Station." But he says he's going to change the order. "'Filling Station' would end the evening in a happy manner," he says. "But 'Sestina' will end the evening in a thought-provoking manner. That's the mood I want to inflict on everyone as they leave." Standing in front of the podium, he delivers spirited readings of both poems.
Students gather afterward to congratulate one another. Gopen, announcing that nearly all of the handouts that he brought were snapped up, pronounces the night a success.
January 31, 2007