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5 things to know about… poetry

Today is National Poet’s Day, which is fitting to celebrate at Case Western Reserve University, as this year’s common reading selectionNo Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay—puts a spotlight on poetry.

As Kay’s first volume of poems, the book explores topics such as love, family, communication and loss.

First-year students each received a copy of No Matter the Wreckage over the summer to read; it will serve as a unifying piece for programming during the Class of 2022’s first semester.

And next week, Kay’s words will come to life for the entire Case Western Reserve University community when she speaks at fall convocation as the 2018 Elaine G. Hadden Distinguished Visiting Author.

Fall convocation will be held Wednesday, Aug. 29, at 4:45 p.m. in Severance Hall. Reserve free tickets for fall convocation.

Photo of Dave Lucas
Dave Lucas

In honor of Poet’s Day and in anticipation of Kay’s upcoming visit, we spoke with Dave Lucas, a lecturer in English and Ohio’s poet laureate, to find out what the Case Western Reserve community should know about poetry. 

1. The medium is language.

Poets work with language the same way painters work with color and shape. But we all use—and delight in using—language. We love the sounds of words, even as we mostly use them for what they mean (or for what we make them mean). When we recognize the ways in which words are both instrumental and aesthetic—that moment where their sounds and sense blur into each other—we are experiencing poetry.

2. The instrument is the body.

Poetry predates ink and script, the printed page. All you need to experience poetry is a body to hear its sounds—sounds made of and from the body—to feel the rhythm of the words, the tension of their sound and tempo with silence.

As Robert Pinsky observes in The Sounds of Poetry: “When I say to myself a poem by Emily Dickinson or George Herbert, the artist’s medium is my breath. The reader’s breath and hearing embody the poet’s words. This makes the art physical, intimate, vocal, and individual.”

3. The most meaningful meanings are neither “hidden” nor “deep.”

When we worry about what might be “hidden” deep in the poem, we risk missing what’s right there on the surface. This is not to discount analysis (without literary analysis, I’d be out of a job), but that analysis should help us understand how the poem works as opposed to “what it means.”

Over the years I’ve heard countless theories about why William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” is red, or what exactly depends upon it. But none of them have proven more compelling to me than the “so” that opens the poem.

“So much depends,” we’re told, but we don’t know—we can’t know—how much, no matter what else we know about that rain-glazed wheelbarrow “beside the white / chickens.”

4. Great poets lived (and live) here.

One of the great American poets of the 20th century, Hart Crane (1899–1932) lived for a while on what is now the Case [Western Reserve] campus. You can see the statue in his honor near the Kelvin Smith Library, on the new Nord Family Greenway, or the plaque marking his family’s house on East 115th Street.

Before he became a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes (1901–1967) was a graduate of Central High School in Cleveland; he wrote The Negro Speaks of Rivers shortly thereafter.

d. a. levy (1942–1968), the patron saint of the Cleveland independent poetry scene, wrote and published and agitated here, and was even arrested for distributing “obscene poetry” to minors.

Yes, Akron gave the world LeBron James, but before that, it gave us Rita Dove (born in 1952). While still in her 30s, Dove won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Thomas and Beulah, a series of connected poems about her grandparents. Dove served as the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995 and now teaches at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She is also the recipient of this year’s Cleveland Arts Prize for Lifetime Achievement.

And there’s still remarkable poetry being written and performed here in Cleveland. Look for readings on and around campus, or try your hand at your own poem in a workshop with award-winning poet [and Associate Professor of English] Sarah Gridley. Stop in at the Happy Dog Euclid Tavern to hear the People Poetry Slam Aug. 23 at 8 p.m. Or find a quiet spot in the library to pull down a slim volume from the shelf and find yourself suddenly, wonderfully changed.

5. In the words of Audre Lorde: “Poetry is not a luxury.”

On the contrary: It is essential. Poetry can be a way of making meaning of our lives and of attempting to reckon with the lives of others. The lyric poem especially offers us the illusion of encounter with another person—an intelligence, a life that we may experience momentarily without ever losing our own.

Poetry, Lorde writes in Sister Outsider, “forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, the into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”