Junior Poet: a legendary class

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Photo by Paulina Martin.

Lyric Study I, Junior Poet, JPo, trial by fire, poetry boot camp — all these terms refer to a single, legendary class, possibly unlike any other offered at a university. While many liberal arts colleges have senior seminar classes, it seems that the University of Dallas may stand alone in having such an intense class in the fall of one’s junior year.

English Professor Eileen Gregory, Ph.D., who has taught Junior Poet for the last two years, spoke about her experience with the class and its rich history at UD.

Last year was the 50th anniversary of the class’ inception – according to English Professor John Alvis, Ph.D., this class has been continuously offered at the university since 1965, although it has taken many different forms.

“It’s been around almost since we’ve had a Core curriculum, with the Literary Traditions sequence arriving in ’63,” Gregory said.

When she and Alvis were English students in the ’60s, Junior Poet wasn’t even a formal class – just a course of research that was necessary for the major.

“It’s a departmental course,” Gregory said, regarding the longevity of the class. “Various components of it have come into being based on various teachers, and we have a strong track record of keeping those components that have been really effective.”

She also focused on the way the course has gotten more intense with its formalization. The current structure is as follows: the course meets four times a week as an introduction to lyric poetry. As the semester progresses, students begin an independent study of the poet of their choice, which culminates in an annotated bibliography of criticism and a panel presentation with three faculty members who may ask any questions about that poet’s body of work.

Why is this class important to the English program here at UD?

Senior Stephen Henderson took Junior Poet in the fall of 2015. He chose Marianne Moore as his poet and “The Jerboa” as his exemplary poem.

“As a whole, the English major classes here at UD are very heavy in lyric poetry,” Henderson said. “Given how compact and structured poetry is, if you’re able to read and unpack the most condensed form of literature, you’ll be able to tackle any other form with greater ease. It is satisfying to become confident in a particular academic niche and to feel that you could possibly hold your own in a serious, high-level academic discussion about your poet.”

Henderson also addressed why this class is important to UD as a whole university.

“The Junior Poet project requires you to enter into a discussion, whether that be in the form of your evaluation of the work of your poet’s scholars or the oral examination itself,” Henderson said. “My poet, Marianne Moore, loved the concept of doing things with gusto. JPo really is an opportunity to do just that, to learn, question and discuss with gusto. In this way, the project encourages and exemplifies the attitude that UD fosters in all of its students: namely, an enthusiastic, sincere and personal love of learning.”

Gregory added that JPo teaches UD students how to handle the possible chaos of post-grad life.

“Later on in life you may have a job with multiple responsibilities and everything happening at once … but you’ve been there and done that,” Gregory said.

Why would this be considered a legendary class?

Henderson noted that the class has been a tradition of the English department for a long time, and is also a very unique project.

“It does not culminate in the typical thesis paper or presentation but in a discussion with three English professors,” Henderson said.

When asked about JPo in general, Gregory spoke of her love for poetry and its very human importance.

“I fell in love and am still in love with lyric,” Gregory said. “[Junior Poet] gives you a way of seeing what language can do and how far it can take you in capturing human feeling and reflection.”

Henderson and Gregory both also mentioned something I’ve noticed myself: that when English alums meet, JPo is the first thing that comes up in the conversation. It is an experience that brings together English majors of the past, present and future.

“I look back at JPo as a really positive experience, even though it was very stressful,” Henderson said. “It’s a real opportunity to bond with your fellow English majors, since you will most likely be holed up in the library with a lot of them for the most of the semester. Perhaps I’m morbid to say that even the stress was fun at times. Like the Rome semester, you are panicking about the same deadlines as your fellow classmates; there is definitely a greater element of camaraderie than you find in most other classes.”

Gregory echoed Henderson’s comments about the intensity of the course.

“There’s really a great deal of terror involved, I think,” Gregory said. “It pushes student’s boundaries and gives them a sense of themselves — it really is a little bit like bootcamp. I see four years at UD as a process of self-discovery. In this class, you work your guts out, you really do, and at the end you’re able to present a poet as you see them … and to speak authoritatively on a body of work and a body of criticism. We [the English department] want to see you develop a friendship with a poet. Yes, I hope we keep it … I hope it remains a legend.”

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