After the speakers’ concluding remarks, junior Jack Joiner voiced the question that has plagued every University of Dallas student who has seen the advertisements for the Feb. 24 symposium entitled: “Can Poetry Save the World?”
“If poetry can save the world, what is poetry saving the world from — or who?” Joiner asked the four panelists. He received an answer from Dr. Scott Crider.
“I think that [Louise Cowan] thought that a certain disposition toward the contemporary was mistaken, and I think that that disposition was to take its lower forms seriously,” Crider said. “[We should instead] take its higher forms seriously. The poetic project that we’re celebrating and trying to participate in this evening is a way of taking seriously the best of culture as a counterexample; as a counter to a less glorious form. And so in that sense one of the things that poetry is saving us from is a low version of a contemporary world.”
Taking up this question and others, Crider joined Dr. Eileen Gregory, Dr. John Alvis and Dr. Bainard Cowan to provide perspectives on Dr. Louise Cowan’s views on curriculum, lyric, Southern literature and the Russian novel, respectively.
Another anticipated speaker, UD alumnus and Wyoming Catholic College President Dr. Glenn Arbery, was unable to leave his home due to a snowstorm.
Dr. Andrew Moran read Arbery’s paper, “Landscapes of the Imagination: Louise Cowan’s Genre Theory,” in his place.
Moran also noted that Arbery had sent photographs of the snow in his backyard, “so that you know he’s not playing hooky,” according to Moran.
In her talk, “The Lyric and the Ritual of Hospitality,” Gregory offered an alternative idea of the sort of salvation offered by poetry.
“If poetry saves the world, surely we don’t mean in dramatic and apocalyptic terms,” Gregory said. “Here, saving must mean, surely, rescuing something in danger, right? But also it must mean storing and garnering wealth for the future, for posterity … because the literary work imagines itself in a continuity with a past and a future.”
Crider echoed Gregory’s emphasis on the continued work of literature through its timelessness.
“[Louise Cowan] casts [the epic] as a looking back on the past, from the present, for the future,” Crider said. “She thought that the literary tradition could change the world. … It activates within us a recognition of our own experience and being. When such works meet in formal and substantial union, a third poem is made in the student’s soul, that soul now self-aware in relationship to the other two … It respects the desire of young people to matter.”
Alvis discussed “Poetry as a Guide to the Good Life: Louise Cowan on Southern Writers,” and provided a concrete example of how poetry has preserved aspects of Southern life which would otherwise be lost.
“Louise Cowan recognized that the South to which the fugitives devoted their poetry was not to be revived,” Alvis said. “Even if it could no longer be directly experienced, the South’s idea of a way of life, Christian yet hospitable to Hellenic reason, could yet be recovered, at least in thought. What could yet be salvaged, [Cowan] insisted, must now be acquired by formal education … through study of the enduring classics of literature and philosophy.”
Bainard Cowan closed the evening by announcing a more active attempt to save the world through poetry.
“It is with deep gratitude to the support of President Thomas Keefe that I announce that an archive of the writings and notes of Donald and Louise Cowan is presently in the works,” Cowan said. “The holdings will provide material for the project of publishing some of [Louise’s] writings, which we envision in such a way that it will encourage new work to be done in concert with it; enough to give to a larger audience a sense of the urgency of taking to heart a living conception of poetry, such as has been demonstrated tonight in these great speeches.”