Professor-alums reflect on their JPo experiences

1
428

Christina Witkowski, Staff Writer

 

Over the past few weeks, some of you may have noticed the absence of a certain friend from your social circles. On the off-chance you do see him scuttling across the Mall in the dead of night, hunched beneath a backpack full to bursting and looking as if he bore the weight of half the library on his shoulders, you’d notice something’s seemed to come over him. He’s walking about in a near-comatose, clearly sleep-deprived state. What is it, you ask, that ails him so? Perhaps he’d like to go to the chapel to pray awhile? Looking up at you through bleary eyes, he’d only respond, mournfully, “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit.” And then you’d realize: He’s an English major in Junior Poet, and his panel is tomorrow.

JPo-ers, perhaps you’ve reached that level of crazy that comes with knowing the difference between trochaic hexameter and iambic trimeter, antimetabole and apostrophe, epizeuxis and ellipsis, periphrasis and parenthesis; when along with J. Alfred Prufrock, you have measured out your life with coffee spoons. I knew I’d cracked when I scanned a poem inside a greeting card my grandfather sent me.

But you can take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. Decades of UD Yeatsians have bemoaned the fascination of what’s difficult; decades of UD Keatsians have been beset by that drowsy numbness (as if of hemlock they had drunk); decades of UD Whitmanites have simply dissolved into tears, tears, tears.

In fact, among those who have shared this daunting yet rewarding experience are some of your own professors – those who graduated from the University of Dallas after the fall of 1966.

The Junior Poet project was inaugurated in the spring of 1966, though it wasn’t incorporated into a course until the early 1990s, according to professor of English Dr. Robert Dupree, who helped develop the project.

In previous years, the project was much less regulated than it is today. While it was a requirement for the major and appeared on students’ transcripts, it was not given any credit hours. All the research and the annotated bibliography were done in addition to the classes students were taking to fulfill the English major credit requirements, and there was no limit to the number of sources that students could accrue in the study of their poets.

“It all seems quite heroic, doesn’t it?” said Dupree. “I remember one semester when a student, whose poet was Yeats, submitted a 100-item annotated bibliography. A number of projects over the decades were similarly marked by this kind of ambitiousness and thoroughness.”

A few decades after the project’s inception, the faculty of the English department, Dupree among them, determined that the project would be best undertaken in the context of a course on the lyric.

While the structure of the project has changed, however, much of the experience of exploring a poet’s life and work has remained the same.

In the following interviews, current English professors and alumni of the University of Dallas remember their own JPo semesters and share their advice for future JPo students:

Photo courtesy of the University of Dallas
Photo courtesy of the University of Dallas

Dr. John Alvis, ’66

 

CW: Who was your poet, and why did you choose him?

JA: I chose George Herbert. I wanted a poet who was notable for his wit, but there was something off-putting about Donne’s. I didn’t see what it was until I started reading Herbert, when I was struck by the sweetness – the wholesomeness – of his work.

 

CW: What do you currently think of your poet’s work?

JA: If he’s not the greatest of the lyric poets, he’s among the top three, and I’m everlastingly glad I chose him. I think Herbert may be unique in his combination of wit and confidence in God’s grace.

 

CW: What’s the best poem written by your poet, in your opinion? Is there a line of his that always comes back to you?

JA: “Love III” is the best of his lyric poems. At the conclusion of the poem, he writes, “‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’ / So I did sit and eat.” That’s Herbert’s absolute confidence in God’s grace winning over the last remnants of his pride.

 

CW: If you had lived in the time of your poet, do you think the two of you would have gotten along?

JA: I doubt it. I wanted to pick a poet whose working of mind was as different from my own as I could find. He excels in sweetness and I don’t; it wouldn’t make for good conversation. I’d have best appreciated him when he had the floor completely.

 

CW: How would you characterize your approach to the project? (In other words, what kind of a student were you?)

JA: I was an erratic student. In fact, I didn’t particularly like poetry until I studied Herbert. I loved fiction and plays, but the only poetry that I was really drawn to was Homeric, not lyric. That’s probably because I have no musical training.

 

CW: Any study tips for this year’s JPo students?

JA: Think of it as unlimited knowledge. Try to know everything about the poet, including his biography. Get to know the criticism by reading some that’s quite old, something from the New Criticism and then something in light of the 21st century. You’ll get a better notion of literary principle, and the different approaches will better help you understand what poetry is. Make a decision as to the best poems by your poet. Since you study poetry in order to avail yourself of the wisdom of the poet, making a list of the best poems will help you determine where that wisdom is to be found.

 

CW: What is the importance of poetry to the Core?

JA: Poetry is essential to the Core because it enables one to know the resources of language. To know all of the resources of language refines your notion of what it is to reason, and you can finally approach an understanding of what Aristotle means when he says, “Everything that can be thought can be said.” Language is that capacious. That’s what I think of before I think of anything aesthetic, although there are poems that come close to giving me goosebumps.

 

CW: Any other JPo anecdotes you’d like to share?

JA: Students tend to think that their teachers know more than they do about their particular poet, but they don’t. The student really does know more – that’s distinct from understanding, but oftentimes, they even understand more than the people who are asking them questions. Once I asked a student about a poem of Hardy’s, “Who are the two voices in this poem?” What made this particular poem distinct was that it featured one speaker at two different points in his life. I had read it very recently in preparing for the exam, and I didn’t grasp the fact that there was only one person speaking. The student not only knew the poem and was able to correct me, but he had such finesse and courtesy that he did it without exposing my ignorance … now there’s a remarkable mind.

Photo courtesy of the University of Dallas
Photo courtesy of the University of Dallas

Dr. Eileen Gregory, ’68

 

CW: Who was your poet, and why did you choose him?

EG: John Donne – because he was considered the most interesting and the most difficult of poets. Also, there was still an aura about his work connected with T. S. Eliot, and thus an intellectual seriousness associated with him.

 

CW: What do you currently think of your poet’s work? Would you have selected the same poet if you could make the choice again?

EG: I still feel that Donne’s poetry is amazing in its virtuosity and in its intellectual depth. My respect for him has not diminished. But my own predilections now are toward more modern poets.

 

CW: What is your favorite poem by your poet? Is there a line of his that always comes back to you?

EG: It may be “Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day,” because its language is so dense and cacophonous, and its emotion so full of pain. I guess the lines that come back most frequently to me are not from one of his better known poems. They are from “Twickenham Garden”: “But O! self-traitor, I do bring / The spider Love, which transubstantiates all, / And can convert manna to gall.”

 

CW: If you had lived in the time of your poet, do you think the two of you would have gotten along?

EG: Probably not. He would have been too sophisticated for me.

 

CW: How did your JPo experience differ from that of this year’s students?

EG: I think it was probably about the same, in terms of the effect it had on me. But the project was less complex then – exam period was briefer, bibliography less demanding. Still, it packed quite a whallop for me. I simply fell in love with poetry through Donne, and my life has never been the same.

 

CW: How would you characterize your approach to the project? (In other words, what kind of a student were you?)

EG: I was a very dedicated student. There was no “minimum” number of sources then, and so I read everything I could get hold of. I was bewildered by Donne’s poems – even at the literal level. There were fewer good commentaries on his work then, and people had primitive views of him (mostly biographical), and I wasn’t generally satisfied with what I was reading, except for a few critics.

 

CW: Any study tips for future JPo students?

EG: Don’t be too taken in by criticism. Don’t be preoccupied with biography. Leave time to come to your own judgments about the poems, one at a time.

 

CW: What is the importance of poetry to the Core? What does the knowledge of poetry contribute to one’s education?

EG: Poetry is central to the Core – especially lyric poetry, though we do so little of it. It gives students a sense of the dignity and power of language, and also of the importance of “negative capability” – the experience of mystery and uncertainty, inexpressible meanings. Our students tend to be too conceptual in their approach to things. They need to be a little more bewildered at times by the inexpressibility of some thoughts and feelings.

 

CW: Any other JPo anecdotes you’d like to share?

EG: One of the most stunning performances I’ve ever witnessed: A double major in English and drama, who was doing Eliot for her poet, had memorized all of his poems by heart. So when we asked her to identify a phrase from the poems, she recited 20 or 30 without taking a breath. She also understood him profoundly.

 

Photo courtesy of the University of Dallas
Photo courtesy of the University of Dallas

Dr. Gregory Roper, ’84

 

CW: Who was your poet, and why did you choose him or her?

GR: William Butler Yeats. To be honest, I was doing a lot of this in sheer ignorance. I’d heard about Yeats and I knew he was an Irish poet, and I’m of Irish descent, so I just noodled around in the library, flipped through a copy of his collected works and found three or four poems that I really liked. It was all very unsystematic.

 

CW: Would you have selected the same poet if you could make the choice again?

GR: I think so. He’s a great poet. He’s a weird person – a total wacko. The great thing about the project, though, was that I learned to distinguish between the man and the work. It was a neat part of my own development to find the human being annoying and distasteful but still appreciate – and even love – his poetry. Reading his biography, you’d think the guy was cracked in the head – he believed in automatic writing, and his relationships with women were really unfortunate. I doubt he was even very effective as a senator running the Irish Republic. But when he sat down to write a lyric, all this amazing wisdom came forth. It’s not just that he’s formally beautiful (which he is), and it’s not just that he’s a great craftsman (which he is), but that he actually has something important to say, something valuable to reflect upon. His prose leaves a lot to be desired, but his poetry is so full of human wisdom about art and the human experience. Something happened to the man when he sat down to write poetry, and that’s fascinating to think about.

 

CW: Could you name a poem or poems where your poet is at his best?

GR: I was struck early on in my study of Yeats with “Easter 1916.” I liked the way it turned real-life issues into poetry, and the image of “a terrible beauty” was, and is, wonderful. That line from “Among School Children” – “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” – with its implication that we can never separate form from content, has never left me.

 

CW: How about at his worst?

GR: Even though I liked it at first, the early “Irish twilight” poetry strikes me as dated and a bit too full of that self-importance we Irish can get when we moon about ourselves. There really is something crucial that happens to Yeats when he encounters modernism: It toughens his poetry, makes it more stringent and powerful.

 

CW: If you had lived in the time of your poet, do you think the two of you would have gotten along?

GR: I’d love to have a beer with Shakespeare or Chaucer, but probably not with Yeats. I admire his poetic ability, but like I said – personally, the guy was a wacko.

CW: Any study tips for this year’s JPo students?

GR: Memorize, memorize, memorize. The more you have the poems under your belt, the more you can really move from one poem to another, not just getting the gist of the thing, but being able to recall exact images, turns of phrase and lines, the better off you will be. I also advise students to treat the panel as a conversation, not an inquisition. We professors are not there to trip you up, fry you or humiliate you. We want to know what you know, and how you think your way through questions. The most exceptional panels were ones in which the student behaved almost as a colleague.

 

CW: Did JPo inspire you to try your hand at poetic composition?

GR: No, not really. Yeats was too big, too accomplished, too polished to inspire, though I do remember scribbling a few lines here and there. No, I didn’t start writing poetry until I began to go to poetry readings by people my age and younger and thought, “Well, heck, I can do that.”

 

CW: What is the importance of poetry to the Core? What does the knowledge of poetry contribute to one’s education?

GR: Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet who wrote during World War II, says somewhere that philosophy, theology and science are all wonderful studies, but their danger lies in their abstraction. Poetry, on the other hand, unavoidably anchors one in the real, the concrete, the specific. This is a desk; this is a chair; this is a hunk of bread: Deal with them! The poetry in the Core thus forces students to bring all of that wonderful abstraction down to earth – to Achilles and his anger and frustration, to Dante and his particular midlife crisis, to a patch of forest in Mississippi where a particular bear lurks. Poetry, too, is that place where rational thought and imagination come together in the concrete, so it engages the whole human – man as social, political, rational, imitative, emotional, spiritual. Literature, then, isn’t just philosophy done up in pretty little phrases, but is itself a rich, different way of knowing the world.

 

CW: Any other JPo anecdotes that you’d like to share?

GR: I once decided during the first week of teaching a certain JPo class that I wouldn’t let my students use the “f-word” to describe poetry. That is, “flow” – I mean, what does that even mean? So I banned the word, and it got to be a kind of joke amongst the students: “I was about to use the f-word …” That’s exactly what the course is about – giving the students a vocabulary for articulating precisely what they mean.

Photo courtesy of University of Dallas
Photo courtesy of University of Dallas

Dr. Andrew Moran, ’91

 

CW: Who was your poet, and why did you choose him?

AM: George Herbert – I thought it would be interesting to study religious poetry.

 

CW: Would you have selected the same poet if you could make the choice again?

AM: I don’t know – I sometimes wish I could have been a clever modernist. I had a roommate who used to intone Wallace Stevens every night before going to bed and wanted everyone to stop and listen to him like he was some kind of oracle. I didn’t then understand Stevens, but I loved the sound of his poetry. That being said, I still love Herbert. The more you go back to him, the more you recognize his simultaneous simplicity and complexity. His simple themes and homey images mask a complexity of thought and mastery of prosody.

 

CW: Is there a line of your poet’s that always comes back to you?

AM: There’s the one from “The Collar”: “I Struck the board, and cry’d, No more. / I will abroad.” I also like the line from “The Windows”: “[Man] is a brittle crazie glasse.”

 

CW: If you had lived in the time of your poet, do you think the two of you would have gotten along?

AM: Considering the religious situation in early 17th century England, I think I would have been executed at Tyburn. Maybe I would have been cowardly and conformed religiously (I hope I wouldn’t have), or I might have just fled to Italy. On those grounds, I think I would have liked the man, but I don’t think we could have hung out together. I’m sure I would have honored him for his poetry and sanctity, while he, though likely to have found me unlearned, flippant and papistical, would have out of charity tried to hide his dismay.

 

CW: How would you characterize your approach to the project? (In other words, what kind of a student were you?)

AM: Frankly, not a very good one – I didn’t hit my stride until second semester junior year. During my JPo semester, I hadn’t yet developed proper work habits, so I was always behind. It’s all very embarrassing, since I now work with Dr. Davies, my JPo teacher, and he probably wondered how I got here. It’s been a good thing for me, however – now that I’m teaching the class – that I bumbled it as an undergraduate, since I can better help my students avoid my mistakes. I’ve been really on their case about consistency, and not getting behind, because that’s when people pull three all-nighters in a row and get sick. Since I got obsessed with one strand of criticism in Herbert – to what degree is he Calvinist, to what degree Anglican? – I stress to my students the necessity of taking a variety of critical approaches.

 

CW: Any study tips for this year’s JPo students?

AM: Pay attention to formal matters, not just big ideas. UD students always want to jump to big themes right away, and it isn’t their inclination to pay attention to form.

 

CW: What is the importance of poetry to the Core? What does the knowledge of poetry contribute to one’s education?

AM: The brief time we spend with the lyric is especially valuable in light of the rest of the Core curriculum. The philosophy courses get one thinking big thoughts, and the epic gets one thinking big thoughts, and that’s all good – I like that the freshman sequence gives one a taste for meaty questions. But there’s a potential danger of abstraction, of always flying 30,000 feet above. There was a fellow I knew when I was a student here whose conversation was nothing but terms from Plato and Aristotle and who would earnestly ask questions like, “What do you think of justice?” (All I could sputter in response was, “I’m all for it”; he thought I was a moron.). The lyric demands that one listen to sounds, dwell on images, be attentive to tone, to perspective, and from that be aware of one’s own perceiving and one’s own interiority. It, too, is intensely philosophical, but not through having us immediately focus on big ideas; rather, it makes us attentive to particulars, so that we become more aware of and love more fully “the things of this world,” to quote Richard Wilbur.

1 COMMENT

  1. This is superb. Kudos to Christina for conducting the interviews. I can imagine no better succinct introduction to the intellectual life of the University — and, indirectly, to its spiritual life — than this piece.

    “Poetry is essential to the Core because it enables one to know the resources of language.”

    O, we few, we happy few who got to read Dante & Milton with Dr. Alvis. . .

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here