The endless possibilities of poetry | The Source
Every day, Washington University’s Danforth campus on the St. Louis campus offers the chance to indulge in its rich poetry tradition if you know where to look.
Places like east of the Olin Library, where there is an allée of ginkgo trees and which once inspired the poet award winner Howard Nemerov to write “The Consent”.
Or in the Julian Edison University Libraries’ Special Collections Department, where you can find a blue book depicting the doodles of a young TS Eliot.
Or in a meeting room of the faculty in Duncker Hall, where a painting by Joan Elkin entitled “Jarvis Thurston and His Circle” shows the literary power couple Thurston and Mona Van Duyn, the first American poet to collaborate with Donald Finkel, Stanly, Elkin and Richard Stang hold court – a snapshot of the writers of the late 20th century.
The Joan Elkin painting “Jarvis Thurston and His Circle”
The trees murmur. The sidewalks keep long faded footprints. The halls are reminiscent of past and present literary giants, which makes the Danforth Campus a rich place to study poetry.
“People speak of poetry as superfluous to life, but everyone has a quote or song text they care about,” says Aaron Coleman, a 2015 graduate of the MFA Poetry Program and PhD student in Comparative Literature Track, both in Arts & Sciences.
“Poetry creates message spaces in language. New space for complex emotions, reflection and imagination, ”says Coleman, who has published two books of poetry since completing his MFA: Threat Come Close (Four Way Books, 2018), winner of the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s New Writers Award, and St. Trigger ( Button, 2016), winner of the Button Chapbook Prize.
Coleman is also a Fulbright scholar and Cave Canem Fellow who has published essays and poems everywhere from the New York Times Magazine to the Boston Review and Callaloo.
And for the past seven years, he has called St. Louis home when he wrote, studied, and earned his PhD with Ignacio Infante, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature. It’s a relationship that was nurtured while Coleman was earning his MFA and one that led him to continue his graduate education at Washington University to study the poetry of language in translation.
“Poetry creates message spaces in language. New space for complex emotions, reflection and imagination. “
“Poetry aims to express the intangible, and so it may be difficult for people to understand,” Coleman said in March, just weeks before submitting his dissertation. “Untouchability does not undermine their worth, but it is extremely valuable to help people understand their experiences, emotions and identities.”
For Coleman this is an identity as a poet and a black man who wants to understand his heritage and racial differences in this country. It’s an identity he forged from his days as a college football player when he took off his helmet and recorded words after two seasons at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. “Poetry,” he says, “became my language not only to talk about American culture and the strange place of football in it, but to process my own life experiences.”
“I realized that I was not fed by soccer as much as I was fed by poetry.”
That he later went to WashU, studying poetry under renowned contemporary poets Carl Phillips and Mary Jo Bang, and had alongside Justin Phillip Reed, a 2015 MFA colleague who was to win the National Book Award for Poetry in 2018 lucky that he did so he and the university. It was a program that attracted him for its “diversity of poets and approaches to poetry” after graduating from college and spending time living and traveling overseas.
“I wanted to go to a place where I had the time, space and resources to work with people who are masters of contemporary poetry,” he says. “I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. Carl and Mary Jo are historical figures who shape the possibilities of poetry to this day. As their student, I was blown away by the way they could bring their imagination and lived experience together to create poems that didn’t look like the poems of others. “
Mentoring from contemporary literary giants is just one of the reasons WashU’s MFA has gained national recognition in writing. It is one of the university’s most selective graduate programs today.
“The people I met when I visited the program and the people who were in my cohort were not the same [type of] Writers anyway, but we all loved poetry, ”says Coleman. “We’re all trying to find a new way of using language.”
And share these words too. “In poetry, like writing, there is this deeply individual, personal ‘me’ on the side, but I’m on that side because I want to talk to someone else,” says Coleman. “I always hope someone reads it and brings value or perspective to their life.
“Sharing poetry changes your experience of space and time,” says Coleman. “It slows things down.”
To celebrate poetry at WashU, four famous poets share their work as best they can with their own voices. To start a series of videos to be presented later this month, Phillips (below) reads “Dirt Being Dirt,” a poem that explores the idea of ”refusing to change oneself.” Coming videos will feature Coleman reading his poem “American Football,” which captures the beauty and violence of the game. Bang will recite “All Through the Night,” a poem originally published in the New Yorker and inspired by the Cyndi Lauper song of the same name. and Paul Tran, a 2019 graduate of the MFA program and a graduate of the German Chancellor, reads “Copernicus”.
Tran, who is also a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, returns to campus this summer to teach Autobiography & Poetry at the Summer Writers’ Institute. “Teaching is my form of activism,” says Tran. “This is how I break down ideas and investments I have received. This is how you keep paying for the gifts given to me – the gift of thinking critically, speaking boldly, and imagining something else. “
Coleman, who is doing his PhD this semester and starting a postdoctoral fellowship in critical translation studies at the University of Michigan next fall, is always grateful for his time at WashU in both the writing and comparative literature programs.
And for the poet, where the place can be transformative, he remembers a specific space on the Danforth campus: the Hurst Lounge in Duncker Hall – the venerable building on the northwest corner of the Brookings Quadrangle where legends are taught, learned, and have shared.
“This building has been there for more than a century,” says Coleman with a smile, recalling Thursday night’s readings with Reed and his MFA cohort. “So many different writers, different styles and different degrees of severity have shared this space. I feel the echo of these moments when I’m in this room.
“I will always walk through that door with gratitude for how I grew up there.”