Students and professors on the importance of poetry at UD

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The Lit Trad II lyric poetry packet contains many poems important to UD’s Core. Photo by Emma Powers.

I remember watching “Dead Poets Society” when I was younger and being entranced by the way the characters spoke about poetry with one another. 

John Keating’s words echo in my head to this day: “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits, and necessary for sustaining life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” 

It makes me wonder: What about poetry makes it so important to our community, that we have to study it? That we stay alive for it? A few students and professors have some thoughts on this matter.

Dr. Kathryn Davis, associate professor of English, shared how her perception of poetry changed over time. “When I came to UD as a Braniff [graduate] student, I was quite intimidated by poetry. I always felt that I was missing something and I was afraid of saying a stupid or “wrong” thing in discussing it.  

“But as a graduate student, I got permission to take JPo with Dr. [Eileen] Gregory: this experience was transformative, not only because of Dr. Gregory’s extraordinary teaching — Dr. [Scott] Crider called her “The Queen of Lyric,” and I can only agree — but because I realized that there’s no need to be intimidated by poems even if they are difficult.  

“This truth unfolded for me in further classes with Dr. Gregory, Dr. [Andrew] Osborn and Dr. Louise Cowan — over and over again, my UD professors modeled how close, careful and patient reading can help one to come alongside the poet’s vision and see whatever they have to show.”

The initial intimidation is a common experience with poetry, especially for readers who have difficulty thinking in abstract terms.

Sabrina Nguyen, a freshman chemistry major, said, “I think [poetry] throws me off a bit, especially since I’m not very in tune with my emotions or at least [I don’t think I read] with a sensitive mindset.

“When I read poetry, I try to find the facts of the message, but it’s hard because the message adheres more towards how the author felt towards [things like] grief or love, which I don’t catch or understand until a third or fourth read.”

Others, however, find that they are able to enjoy the process of reading and analyzing poetry, and it doesn’t just include English majors or those who consider themselves to be solely creative thinkers.

Eben Treat, a freshman computer science major, described poetry as his “great love in life” and spoke about how his major is not inherently opposed to it.

“Computer science and mathematics are similar to poetry because it forces you to think about things within a system that forces you to follow a system or structure until you don’t. The two are also complementary [because they help you] to understand both the world and humanity. [I think that] both are necessary and neither can be dispensed. The way the Core incorporates poetry [teaches us] how to write by reading poetry.”

Although not every UD graduate will expect to spend their life’s work knee-deep in analyzing poetry, many students can see the importance of studying it.

Crider reiterated the reason behind incorporating poetry into the Core and how students can benefit from it.

“The English Department is animated by the belief that lyric poetry is the most literary of the genres — compared with narrative and drama. [It is] the most concentrated in form, figure and language; the most perceptive in intimacy, precision and scope — and I share that belief. 

“The study of lyric poetry can habituate one to pay attention to the most significant moments and events of life and to do so through beautiful language. To memorize a fine poem, to learn it “by heart,” is to remake your feeling, intellect, and spirit. That poetic re-making of writer and reader is one of the greatest of human experiences,” said Crider.

It seems as though our community would agree with John Keating when he says: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.”

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