A Rite of Passage: The Junior Poet Project

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If you walk into a UD English major’s apartment, you might catch a glimpse of a candle with someone’s face on it. You wonder, “Is this one of those saint candles?” But you would be mistaken. Who but a J-Po veteran would be in possession of a candle with John Keats’ face on it?

At UD, every major reaches its pinnacle with a capstone project typically in the senior year. The average English major, however, will venture into two capstone projects — one in their junior year and another in their senior year.

The junior year project, affectionately known as J-Po as coined by Dr. Andrew Osborn, focuses on the life and work of a poet of the student’s choosing. It was first conceived by Dr. Louise Cowan, a former English department chair, and developed over the course of UD’s history.

According to UD alumna and Distinguished Professor Emerita of English Dr. Eileen Gregory, B.A. ‘68, “[U]ntil the 1980s, the project was a requirement for the major, but it was attached to one of the regular Lit courses — I think Renaissance. There was no single faculty member who organized it and attended all the sessions. There was no course designated especially to the study of poetry and the Poet project — such as we have now — until 1980 or 1981, when Dr. Ray DiLorenzo as chair created that paradigm.”

Since then, the project has evolved into what it is today.

The juniors spend a whole year “married to” the poet as this year’s director, Dr. Scott Crider, explained according to the students, and finish the project with a panel featuring several English professors where they recite one of the poet’s poems, present an analysis of it, turn in an Annotated Bibliography, and answer questions from the panel.

Besides the reward of finishing such a monumental project in and of itself, the J-Po students will also enjoy a celebration put on by Karen Gemple, administrative assistant, and the rest of the department faculty.  Gemple also assembles and distributes the iconic class gifts: a votive candle with a photo of each student’s poet.

Junior English major Clare Shrake said that they are currently in the “honeymoon phase” that consists of enjoying reading through the poems and biographies of the poet.

Shrake, who chose T. S. Eliot as her poet, shared why she decided to choose him after reading through one of his poems in high school: “When I first read [“The Hollow Men”], I fell in love with Eliot’s use of broken language to convey his haunting images. After hearing my teacher’s explanation of the poem, I became even more fascinated. 

“Eliot’s depictions of mankind in its quest for fulfillment, although sometimes disturbing and frustrating, have an authenticity about them that I resonate with. He uses a lot of big words and scary vocabulary, so I am hoping to learn some fancy new words from him.”

While the junior class is looking forward to embarking on the intensely focused and immersive J-Po project and all the rollercoaster emotions that come with taking on such a task, the senior English majors are reminiscing about going through the same process as they gear up to take on the second capstone project: Senior Novel.

The mere thought of an undertaking such as J-Po can be daunting, but those who have been through it can speak to the relief, benefits and satisfaction of finishing J-Po.

Last year, J-Po veteran and senior English major Mary Freund spent a year diving into George Herbert’s canon and believes the project was extremely beneficial to her UD education and formation.

“I think I expected to be stressed every minute of the semester,” Freund said. “In reality, the moments of stress were balanced by moments of grace. J-Po certainly is challenging because, unlike other English classes like Lit Trad, the big task of the class is not writing essays or even reading; it’s learning how to argue about a particular poet’s contribution to English poetry.

“But I also experienced immense satisfaction throughout the semester in realizing how, little by little, I was learning to form my own judgments and original analyses of poetry. I’m especially proud of my J-Po panel. Even though it was an exam, it felt like a normal conversation with the professors, and I loved being able to share my insights and to hear their interpretations.”

Both projects work in tandem to provide UD English majors with not only the experience of researching poetry and prose but also with important professional and life skills like public speaking, critical analysis and confidence in one’s work.

English department chair Dr. Debra Romanick Baldwin said: “J-Po is the very heart of our literature program. Everything else we do builds on being able to read a lyric poem: pausing and hearing how its music blends with its sense, celebrating how the details of craft make it work, how the distinctive voice of the poet makes it real. And the course endures. 

“You just have to listen to alumni weekend conversations.  Five, ten, twenty years later, people are still talking fondly about their J-Po Poets.”

Shrake and Freund agree that doing both projects helps complete the English major’s journey through understanding how to analyze texts and their cultural, and even personal at times, significance.

“As students of English literature, we don’t focus solely on poetry or solely on novels; we recognize the importance of both, and doing two capstone projects rather than a single senior thesis allows us to encounter English literature in full and to acknowledge the value of both,” Freund said.

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