Undergraduate Program Newsletter
Winter 2013 Volume 14 Issue 1
Seamus Heaney Remembered Inside this Issue
2 Welcome to English Class of 2013 4 Alumni Profiles 7 Departmental Writing Fellow 8 Faculty Profile 12 Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory 16 Writers in the Parlor 18 In the News
Department of English
20 Fall Term Scrapbook
Welcome to English Class of 2013
Dianisbeth Acquie Emma Adler Tosin Alabi Kiara Barrow Julia Becerra Sophia Becker Juan Bedoya Zoë Burgard Lauren Claus Preston Craig Camille Crossot Ellie Crowley Alistair Debling Marlee Ehrlich Bryan Ellis Sofia Escudero Katie Farineau Ramon Galvan Phillip Golub Brandan Griffin Julia Haney
Annie Harvieux Ema Horvath Bridget Irvine Gabriel Jandali-Appel April Kim Naomi Lang Sherry Liu Brianna MacGregor Kate Massinger Kelley Guinn McArtor Moira McCavana Michael McGlathery Paul Meosky Olivia Miller Olivia Munk Gideon Nachman David Neustadt Tree Palmedo Rebecca Panovka Min-Woo Park Aemilia Phillips
Jessica Reese Sam Reynolds Molly Roberts Mike Ross Anthony Schiappa Pietra Daniel Schwartz Ethan Simon Jared Sleisenger Ren Jie Teoh Bailey Trela Nina van Loon Sindhu Vegesena Camila Victoriano Jake Wilder-Smith Stella Wong Zachary Wong Dashiell Young-Saver Catherine Zuo Frankie Zwick
“There is risk and truth to yourselves and the world before you.” —Seamus Heaney
"From a young age, I have loved and have found friends in books. Before I got to Harvard, however, I never realized that I could carry on my love of reading to create skills applicable to the real world. I hope to continue my love of reading as an English concentrator, as well as improve my analyzing skills, work on my arguments, and find my unique style as a writer. I chose English as a concentration because I believe in the power of language, and see the need for it in today's world."
“I have no choice in being human and that's the reason I made the decision to study English. If I'm going to live an extraordinary life I'm going to need to learn how to understand and communicate effectively with people. What better way than acquiring the skills to read, write and analyze? Literary works are one of our greatest creations and plays, poems and novels can teach us so much about human nature and life. English is the way! “
One of the major events that persuaded me to choose Harvard was a certain Café Pamplona date. On my first visit to Cambridge, I sat down with two seasoned English concentrators and some iced coffee and listened excitedly as they raved about their beloved department. Their testimonies proved true; this department not only has exemplary professors and teaching fellows, but a truly warm sense of community and fellowship. I'm so excited to be a part of the English family!
I grew up as an only child with two working parents, and for most of my childhood my closest companions were the stories and characters found in books. Ever since those years, I have been deeply fascinated by words and the profound effects they have on our human existence, and by studying English I feel that I will be better able to understand how they produce those effects. As I am currently studying on a government scholarship, I will be working for my country's civil service once I graduate. I hope to use the skills I gain through my study of English to help my government better communicate its policies to its citizens at home and its friends abroad.
—Ren Jie Teoh
Alumni Profiles Amelia Lester Class of 2005
“This is an English department that above all else values the experience of reading, and intimate engagement with the text.…” way). You might end up like I did in the media, where expressing yourself succinctly, and helping others to do the same if you are an editor, is everything. It turns out that the best way to become a better writer is to read more, ideally by people who really know what they’re doing. But even if you don’t go into a profession where writing is part of the job, you will still be composing emails, and talking in meetings, and reading the newspaper, and having conversations where getting what you want will depend on expressing yourself clearly—and deciphering what the other person is saying. These are all examples of close-reading, a skill which the English department strives to instill and develop in its undergraduates.
Photo coutesy of Amelia Lester
It is a sad fact that for most of us, a long day at the office is not often followed by a spoken reading of “The Faerie Queene.” Which is precisely why I am so grateful for the four years I spent in the English Department at Harvard, where I had the chance to discover Spenser, and Chaucer, and Milton, and Eliot (everyone’s allowed their own idiosyncratic list). This was deeply satisfying in itself, and remains to me the most compelling argument to major in English: for all but the most self-disciplined among us, or unless you’re pursuing graduate study in the subject, you won’t get this opportunity to discover, and then truly concentrate on, so many masterpieces of the English language again. Something you will have to do every day in your professional and personal life, however, is read—and write. Which leads to my crassly practical, second-best reason for majoring in English. Perhaps you are interested in reading and writing for a living, and you enjoy learning about other people’s business (this is why novels are inherently fun for nosy people, by the
An aside about my own experience, and those of my friends. “Communication skills”—the sort of hackneyed phrase you will cringe about using for the rest of your life thanks to your time in the English department—are even more important these days, because the workforce is changing and industries are transforming. Many of my peers are now doing jobs in the online sphere that didn’t even exist when we graduated less than a decade ago. They were hired not because they had relevant experience, which would be impossible, but because they come across as “smart,” which is to say, as clear thinkers. I got my first job because I published an essay about how I didn’t know how to look for a job, and then got my next job because I sent a cleverly-worded email, or at least what I thought was at the time. This is, improbably, how people get jobs—even their dream job, in my case, working at a magazine I had loved and admired since discovering it in college. So from a purely utilitarian perspective, figuring out how the best writers in our language do it seems a wise investment. But I hate to use a word like “investment” when talking about the value of an English degree, so I’m now going to quickly pivot to my final reason, which is more sentimental, though no less compelling. Some of my
fondest memories of college revolved around my time in the English department: a Monday afternoon seminar on eighteenth-century travel literature in the basement of the Barker Center where we spent weeks on Gulliver’s Travels; reading Naipaul for another seminar, for the first time, at a coffee shop in the Square; a poetry tutorial in which the professor promised we might spend several sessions on just one line, if it warranted it—and we did. There was a lecture class on the American novel which was pure pleasure, and which was intensely annoying to my roommate, an economics major (why did I get to read Wharton when she was doing problem sets?). This is an English department that above all else values the experience of reading, and intimate engagement with the text. It’s probably true that you will never get to discuss property ownership in Shakespeare’s tragedies with such a smart group of people ever again, but you will keep reading. Even if you take up jogging post-college, reading will be the best, most edifying, most enjoyable habit you have. You will even do it after work. And whether or not what you are reading is worthy of inclusion on a Harvard syllabus, because you were an English major, you will be able to explain why. Amelia Lester is a senior editor at the New Yorker. She was previously the magazine’s managing editor.
Leslie Jamison Class of 2004
I remember the Barker Center in haunting fragments: the bright Cambridge light, the feeling of walking upstairs eagerly, full of whatever text I was about to discuss; and I remember it so clearly because the English Department was a source of constant challenge and excitement to me: seminars where I felt myself pushed and thrilled, where I sat and spoke and listened in a state of sustained awe of the range of inquiry that the discipline of English can entail. English can mean counting syllables or it can mean thinking about nineteenth-century American prison policy or it can mean trying to figure out a way to transmute grief or joy into lyric expression. It can involve hours poring through old letters in dusty archives. It can involve staying up all night lost in the mysterious and endlessly unfolding world of a book; that bone‑bred, basic pleasure. There is no part of my current professional life that hasn’t been informed and shaped by my experience as an undergraduate English major at Harvard. Since graduating nearly ten years ago, I’ve pursued two advanced degrees in the field (an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD in English from Yale); taught creative writing and literature at the University level; and published numerous stories and essays in magazines and journals ranging from Harper’s to The New Republic to the San Francisco Chronicle. I’ve published a novel, The Gin Closet, and have a collection of essays forthcoming next year, The Empathy Exams. The habits of mind I learned in the English concentration—to think critically and express myself carefully—have served me well in the worlds of academia and trade publishing alike. But my professional timeline does very little to communicate what I mean when I say that my time in the Harvard English department “informed and shaped” my current professional life. What I mean is this: at Harvard, I encountered people, students and professors alike, who were absolutely passionate about pursuing the questions that drove them: how did people in eighteenth century Britain imagine foreign lands? How did Emerson experience the death of his son? How do I turn my personal experience of loss into a meaningful act of lyric expression?
Photo coutesy of Leslie Jamison
“There is no part of my current professional life that hasn’t been informed and shaped by my experience as an undergraduate…” I was given the chance to ask questions of my own, and I began to consider the ways literature might answer them. I was given space and time to be excited about literature—its possibilities and its challenges—and I was granted many hours of conversation with some of the smartest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. My ideas were challenged and encouraged in meaningful ways; I learned to question myself and follow my instincts—to find some balance between those two imperatives. While my career has remained fairly overtly connected to the discipline of English, I can say that my undergraduate peers in the English major have gone on to a variety of careers—from finance to law to travel writing—and have felt the rigor and excitement of their lives as English majors continuing to echo across these various spheres. I recently had the pleasure of watching a friend (and fellow Harvard ’04 English concentrator) appear on the Colbert Report, where she was talking— with eloquence, grace, and well-calibrated wit—about her first book. Part of what I loved about Harvard wasn’t just the chance to engage with passionate minds, but the chance to witness and participate in the formation of passionate communities—spaces in which people didn’t arrive fully formed but were formed, shaped and challenged, by everyone around them. The Harvard English department was and is an extraordinary community of passion; I feel lucky to have been part of it.
Departmental Writing Fellow Martin Greenup Greetings! My name is Martin Greenup and I am a graduate student in the Department of English. As part of my teaching duties for this academic year, I am serving as the inaugural Departmental Writing Fellow, a new position in the department sponsored by the Harvard College Writing Program. Specifically, it is my job to provide writing support to the Junior Tutorial program, helping juniors with all aspects of writing the long junior essay. Going from writing 6-page essays in section to writing a 25-page research essay in a Junior Tutorial presents a number of challenges. How, for instance, does one formulate an argument that can be developed over the length of a junior essay? And how is one to integrate secondary sources to best effect? Having myself taught several Junior Tutorials in the department, I have a good understanding of some of the strategies for writing a successful junior essay. Midway through the fall semester I held a one-off lunchtime workshop for juniors: “Writing Introductions and Arguments.” While enjoying pizza and soda, we looked at the openings of two literary critical essays taken from scholarly journals. First I read aloud one of the essays, commenting on the moves that the writer made in setting up her essay – from establishing a context, to asking a research question, and to stating the argument. Then I read the second essay and encouraged the students to provide the commentary. Throughout the semester I hold a weekly writing clinic, to which juniors are encouraged to drop in with any questions or concerns about writing. The bulk of my work, however, involves one-on-one consultations with students, which are made by appointment and last for an hour. Typically the student will bring in some pages
Photo by Henry Vega Ortiz
of writing – anything from an emerging prospectus to a full draft of the junior essay. After a short introductory discussion, I will read the pages for 15 minutes or so while the student goes for a coffee. Then we will reconvene to discuss in detail his or her writing. I will offer a set of helpful suggestions which might include guidance on how to bring out the argument more effectively, comments on how to restructure the essay, and recommendations about style. The aim is that the student will go away from the meeting with a very clear idea about what needs to be done in order to improve and strengthen his or her writing. If you are a junior who is taking a Junior Tutorial in the spring semester, you should look out for a friendly email from me in the near future. For my part, I will look forward to working with you and helping you develop as an academic writer.
Derek Miller Assistant Professor of English What attracted you to musical theatre?
© Suzanne Camarata Photography
Spring Courses: 90 Level
An English Theatrical Revolution, 1833–1914 A course on British theater in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, with a focus on the intersection of commercial and artistic innovations. Topics include melodrama, Gilbert & Sullivan, Ibsenism, the New Woman, censorship, copyright, and the rise of Modern Drama.
American Plays and Musicals, 1940-1960 A course on Golden Age Broadway musicals within their theatrical context. Readings pair plays with musicals on a similar theme, including Death of a Salesman and The Music Man, Mister Roberts and South Pacific, and The Miracle Worker and My Fair Lady.
I saw my first musicals when I was a kid, so they’ve always felt like home. As I grew older and cast a critical eye on theater, I started exploring musicals as expressions of specific cultural moments. Historically, critics neglected middlebrow, popular genres such as the musical. But by focusing only on the most elevated or innovative works, we gain a false impression of how cultural production works. That’s why I continue to study musicals and why I’m developing a project now, for instance, that reads musicals in relation to contemporary non-musical plays. (I’ll develop these ideas in my spring course) Too much musical theater scholarship considers the musical in isolation, as a separate genre. I want to read the midcentury American musical within its theatrical context. Who are your favorite playwrights? Who are you most influenced by? There are many playwrights whose work I admire, such as Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Molière, Shaw. Annie Baker, whom Briggs-Copeland Lecturer Sam Marks and I will welcome to campus next term, is a terrific contemporary playwright. However, because I try to recognize plays as performances, not simply texts, I want to answer a different question: what are some of the most memorable performances you’ve seen? At the top of the list is David Cromer’s production of Our Town. Cromer interpolated a small innovation at the end of his production that viscerally expressed the play’s thematic concern with our inattention to daily life. I also admire a shattering Wild Duck at BAM, with intensely focused, finely calibrated acting and a brilliantly paced final act. The Robert Wilson-directed Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera is one of the most beautifully designed shows I’ve
“I hope students learn to think about theater not simply as a dramatic text, to be read like a novel or poem, but as a multimedia practice.” seen. I have a soft spot still for Trevor Nunn’s Oklahoma! revival, which inspired my senior thesis and launched me (though it took a few years!) into my academic work. Then there are the individual performances that stay with me, including Ian McDiarmid in Faith Healer and Mark Rylance in Boeing‑Boeing. As for influence, my thinking about theater derives much more from my experience on stage and in the rehearsal room than in the audience. It’s so easy, as an audience member, to let a show wash over you (this was, of course, Brecht’s worry). But when you rehearse, every detail requires attention and thought. I try, as an actor, to have a naïve encounter with a play, to fill each instant with possibility and wonder. This is the approach I try to bring to the classroom: a willed confusion that defamiliarizes the text, that remains productively confused about every word, every gesture, every moment. What do you like most about teaching? Every course offers its own challenges and rewards. For instance, in my lecture course right now, a survey of Western drama, I’m constantly searching for ways to articulate the value of each play we study. Because we’re moving at such a rapid clip (2500 years in twelve weeks!), I feel an extra obligation to cut to the core of each work, to give students an immediate encounter with the essence of the text. Next term, my course offerings are more experimental, more research-based, and we’ll have time to think through larger questions about the meaning of theater-making.
a seemingly infinite number of shows. She replied that, while it might be her 300th performance, it was the first time for someone in the audience, and she was humbled to share the work with them. What do you like most about teaching at Harvard? I love the varied casts of mind that the students bring to the conversation. I’m constantly struck by how differently all these brilliant students approach a play, and I remain fascinated by their instincts. I’m also deeply grateful for the library resources, particularly the Houghton Library, where I took both my classes this term. It’s extremely unusual to be able to show students a quarto of Doctor Faustus or a manuscript draft of Arms and the Man. It was gratifying to see students as energized by those items as I am. What do you hope the students will take away from your courses? Above all, I hope students learn to think about theater not simply as a dramatic text, to be read like a novel or poem, but as a multimedia practice. This means understanding that theater depends on the combined skills of writers, actors, designers, technicians, producers, agents, etc. Other forms of literature give the impression of completeness, but dramatic texts are fundamentally incomplete. A production fulfills a play’s potential. To do so, it must be crafted by a community, working together to bring the magic of theater to life.
In any class, I enjoy the surprises, the new connections that students make, the accidents or asides that grow into substantive thoughts on their own. I try to remain available to those moments. I also feel honored to introduce students to the plays we read. I think about a story I heard: an actress in a long-running hit was asked how she managed to keep her performance fresh every night, after
Seamus Heaney Remembered April 13, 1939 – August 30, 2013
On November 7th, the Department of English invited the community to gather for a commemoration and celebration of Seamus Heaney. Through words and music, members of the department On November 7th, Departmenton of English remembered andthereflected the poetry invited the community to gather for a comand life of their beloved colleague. In memoration and celebration of Seamus Heaney. addition to several of his poemsof being read Through words and music, members the aloud, many reflectedand notreflected only ononHeaney’s department remembered the poetry and theirhumble, beloved colleague. In adwork, butlifeonof his kind character dition to several of his poems being read aloud, and convivial presence. Among the many many reflected not only on Heaney’s work, but readings and Professor on his humble, kind performances, character and convivial presence.Kiely Among the many on readings and perRobert reflected Heaney’s time at formances, Professor Robert Kiely reflected Harvard when he lived in Adams House: on Heaney’s time at Harvard when he lived in “Like true“Like survivor Harvard, Seamus Adamsany House: any trueofsurvivor of Harlearned howlearned to disappear and doand hisdowork, vard, Seamus how to disappear his work, but he also loved celebrations and but he also loved celebrations and aa good good party. Throughhis his poetry generous party. Through poetryandand generous disposition, his was a welcome presence and disposition, wasInterim a welcome presence voice in many his parts”. Department Chair,and voice inWatson, many parts”. Nicholas remarked:Interim “Most ofDepartment the greatest giftsNicholas Seamus shared, both his poetry and “Most his Chair, Watson, remarked: friendship, were given even in the classroom of the greatest gifts Seamus shared, both to individuals and now remain with each of us his poetry and friendship, were by given alone, joined as we his are by memories, tonight grief, and by gratitude.” even in always the classroom to individuals and now remain with each of us alone, joined as we are by memories, tonight by grief, and always by gratitude.”
“If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.” 10
©Martine Franck / Magnum Photos
“The fact of the matter is that the most unexpected and miraculous thing in my life was the arrival in it of poetry itself as a vocation and an elevation...”
“The aim of poetry and the poet is finally to be of service, to ply the effort of the individual into the larger work of the com‑ munity as a whole.”
“The main thing is to write for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust that imagines its haven like your hands at night dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast. You are fasted now, light‑ headed, dangerous. Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest.” 11
Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory Helen Vendler
When Seamus Heaney came to the English Department in 1979 it was as a Visiting Professor, but he was soon voted into tenure, as members of the Department came to know his exemplary character as a teacher and his ever-advancing work as a poet. Seamus came for one semester a year for ten years, returning a buoyant “Yes” to every undergraduate request: would he give a reading? would he attend a student function? would he Photo coutesy of Helen Vendler hold extended office hours? would he advise a student wanting to spend a junior year in Ireland? At first, he taught Creative Writing, but soon he was asked to teach literature (it used to be believed that only persons holding a Ph.D. could teach literature, while writers were able to offer only writing courses; Seamus’ presence changed that view, not least because he had been a professor of literature at Queen’s College, Belfast.) He offered a course in modern Irish poetry, but did not include his own work in the syllabus. The absurdity of this modesty—since he was the best-known and bestregarded modern Irish poet—was somewhat mitigated when he agreed to let me give one lecture on his own poetry. As anyone who heard Seamus lecture will recall, his remarks on fellow-poets were pithy, witty, and serious; his capacity to absorb and sympathize with the work of others was rare and generous. Students in his course— which was necessarily historical and cultural as well as literary—were made aware, often for the first time, of a divided Ireland, North and South, and of the companies of poets in each sector. I once asked Seamus if I could attend one of his Creative Writing classes, and he said “Of course.” I went in, curious how Seamus would react to the work of American undergraduates. First, he gave out the work of the next week: I thought he might abide by the older tradition in such courses: first teaching students to write in formal metrical verse, then allowing them further liberty. My assumption was rebuked: the assignment was to write a
letter in verse to an unborn child. I saw that what Seamus most wanted to do was to enliven his students’ imagination beyond first-person narration. Various poems were discussed that day, but I remember only one, a construction so unshapely that my own impulse was to avert my eyes and say “Go away.” It seemed impossible that anything could be done to this set of lines to make them into a poem. Seamus, however, turned curious: “You know, I think that this poem is really trying to be two poems: your middle lines are a sort of song, wanting to get sung, but the beginning wants to tell a story. What do you think?” He had really seen and entered into the creative impulse that lay behind the poem, and I could see the student’s face brightening with a sense of possibility. And I could see again why I could work only with poems I deeply admired, and not with the fragmented struggles of beginners. I simply didn’t possess Seamus’ imagination of future progress. Seamus was elected to the Oxford Professorship of Poetry while he was teaching for us; that post requires the poet to give three open lectures a year for five years. To write fifteen lectures on poetry interesting not only to a university audience but to the general public as well is notoriously difficult; to compose them while devoting yourself to teaching (and the added duties of endless student recommendations) was almost impossible. And during those five years of the Oxford Professorship, Seamus’ mother and father died within two years. Not once did Seamus falter in his Harvard work; he simply gave his courses, saw students, and completed, year after year, at great cost, three lectures for Oxford. Those were the only years when I recall Seamus looking hollowed out by the fatigue following parental deaths and by his transatlantic commuting to Oxford as well as to Ireland. And, in a great service to Harvard, he fulfilled his obligation to teach in the semester after he won the Nobel Prize. Anyone else would have taken a leave to cope with the torrent of correspondence and readings inundating the poet as a consequence of the Nobel. Seamus, however, with grace and sturdiness, took no leave; he came and taught, because we were expecting him. Seamus made friends with all the Boston and Cambridge poets, as well as professors in both cities; the whole
— April 13 1939 Bron in Castledawson, UK — 1957 Studies English Language at Queen’s University of Belfast — 1965 Marries Marie Devlin — 1966 Publishes Death of a Naturalist Recieves Eric Gregory Award Appointed as lecturer in Modern English Literature at Queen’s University of Belfast — 1967 Recieves The Cholmondeley Award — 1975 Publishes North — 1972 Moves to Dublin — 1979 Appointed as Visiting Professor Harvard University — 1982 Appointed as the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory Harvard University — 1989 Became Professor of Poetry at Oxford University — 1990 Publishes Selected Poems, 1966–1987 — 1995 Awarded The Nobel Prize in Literature — 1999 Publishes Beowulf: A New Verse Translation — 2002 Awarded Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism for Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971-2001 — 2006 Awarded T.S. Eliot Prize for District and Circle Photo courtesy of the Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.
— August 30, 2013 Died in Dublin, Republic of Ireland
“...There was in Seamus an iron moral standard, immediately brought into play at the sight of injustice. It is what makes his poetry formidable as well as moving.” enterprise of poetry was heartened by his being in our neighborhood. Because he knew, as a cattle-dealer’s son, the hard work of haying, and sieving wheat, and taking care of cattle-breeding, he felt poetry as an internal continuation of that work, not something cut off from it. It was not an “elite” art: it was not a “useless” art. It was, as always, the work of the senses streaming through the heart and mind, excluding nothing human. Everyone was welcome at the table. This amplitude of vision, present everywhere in his prose, encouraged all his hearers. Yet for all his geniality and conviviality, there was in Seamus an iron moral standard, immediately brought into play at the sight of injustice. It is what makes his poetry formidable as well as moving. And there was an understanding of the human predicament exceedingly rare in men of his generation: what other poet was writing about the shamed Irish girl who drowns her illegitimate child, about another such girl who keeps her child hidden in a henhouse, silently feeding him through a slit in the door, until he is discovered at ten, unable to speak? It was not only in human company that Seamus’s compassion was felt; it appears incessantly in his poems about persons other than himself. Once a student of his and mine died of AIDS; his classmates wanted me to ask Seamus for something to be read at the memorial service. It was several years earlier that Seamus had taught that student in a writing class. I left a message on Seamus’s voice mail in Dublin and the next day had a message back--a beautiful reminiscence, exact in every detail, of the student and his work. I realized then that Seamus could do a scan of a person—his character, his sensibility—that was indelible, and that could be peeled off like a Polaroid when needed. It was an eerie realization of a gift Seamus had never mentioned because, I suppose, he felt it to be natural. His album of persons was very full. He lived, while he was here, in an ordinary tutor’s suite in Adams House, and of course missed his family keenly and longed for them. But making the best of his solitude,
he enjoyed the contact with tutors and students in the dining hall. His democracy was as real as his humor: he could converse with anyone, and he had a quip for every occasion. Conversations vanish over time, but not the feel of conversation: as Wordsworth wrote, “The soul, / Remembering how she felt but what she felt / Remembering not, retains an obscure sense / Of possible sublimity.” That is how I remember exchanges with Seamus; even his quotidian remarks had something of the possible sublimity of the imagination prompting them. We were lucky in his recurrent presence with us and in his genuine love of American poetry. I once asked him who was his favorite poet: to my great surprise he didn’t name Wordsworth or Keats or Hardy; he said “Robert Frost.” Photo by Dino Ignani
from Kinship IV This centre holds And spreads, Sump and seedbed, A bag of waters And a melting grave. The mothers of autumn Sour and sink, Ferments of husk and leaf Deepen their ochres. Mosses come to a head, Heather unseeds, Brackens deposit Their bronze. This is the vowel of earth Dreaming its root In flowers and snow, Mutation of wathers And seasons, A windfall composing The floor it rots into. I grew out of all this Like a weeping willow Inclined to The appetites of gravity. Poem reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Writers in the Parlor with novelist Alan Gurganus
Writers in the Parlor is a forum for presenting different visions and voices beyond that of the faculty through conversations with established writers of a certain stature.
Over 50 attendees came to hear novelist Alan Gurganus—who has been called the rightful heir to Eudora Welty and William Faulkner—read from his most recent book, Local Souls, a collection of linked novellas: Fear Not, Decoy, and Saints Have Mothers. The reading he chose was a passage from Saints Have Mothers, a story about a mother who struggles with a wide range of situations, thoughts and feelings that occur when her daughter, a child prodigy, goes missing.
Photo by Henry Vega Ortiz
Gurganus has authored five works of fiction, earned four Emmys for adaptations of his work, and his first novel, The Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All, is considered a modern classic. .
• Local Souls • Plays Well with Others • The Practical Heart • White People • Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All
During the Q&A portion of the event, Gurganus advised young writers on the importance of getting to the “architecture of the story” at the onset of writing by evaluating when to be intuitive or trusting versus when to be smart; allowing the initial process to be messy by giving “ourselves permission to expand and be reckless and careless before we can then narrow it down into something refined;” and, finally, to let the material dictate how the story is directed. He always writes his first drafts by hand and thinks that starting out as a painter has allowed him to make associations between drawing and handwriting: “…to have a beautiful pen making wet lines on the page makes me think I have the kind of freedom that a drawer has. And I do.” He also believes that writing is “musical notation” and “it’s very important to read your work aloud all the time. That maybe the most profound thing that…will help you speed up the process of getting something that’s ready…” On research, Gurganus points out its importance but cautions that it can also be a vice. One can focus on being an expert in one field and never write a single word. “There has to be a margin of imagination in everything you do,” he said.
“…If you’ve really loved a person onto the page including their faults and their flaws, which are an essential part of their humanity… you’ve created something to defend…” Allowing himself an extended period of time to develop his narrative is also essential to Gurganus’s method, writing each book at about a ten year pace. He is not idle during that time, but writes every day, waiting for something that is ripe. Adding, “Shakespeare says ‘ripeness is all,’ which means being alive to your time… [and] being accepting of where you are in your life.”
class whose work speaks most to you and your work. And, take them aside and say, ‘Let’s make a bargain to read each other alive.’” Gurganus is currently working on his next book, which is centered on a Southern Baptist Church with a curse.
Intuition, which Gurganus advocates above all other things, leads a writer “…to say forthrightly, ‘I love this and I will defend it.’ I think we write fiction in order to recreate people to defend.” It is also about the continual retelling of “people who are unlucky in life which is all of us ultimately…and, the subject is the difficulty, the comic difficulty of existing and how to treat it with equipoise, and wisdom, and acceptance...if you’ve really loved a person onto the page including their faults and their flaws, which are an essential part of their humanity… you’ve created something to defend and that’s a heroic and political act in and of itself.” Furthermore, Gurganus describes writing as “…a way of repaying the great joy of being alive…and, it’s a way of saying ‘I was here, I noticed, I leave a note. This is my tribute to what I was given.’” It is “synonymous with community…predicated on an idea that we are all more alike than we are different, that an emotion in Saudi Arabia is an emotion in Keosauqua, Iowa. That childbirth, procreation, senescence and death mean the same thing to everybody…and, that by singing that music to each other we have a chance of redeeming ourselves and redeeming our extraordinarily suicidal ways...and, by just inventing stories one is participating in this kind of symphonic redemption…” His final piece of advice to writers is to not think of themselves as isolated storytellers but that “stories have to be heard to be believed and to matter. Find the three or four people or two people or the one person in your Photo by Henry Vega Ortiz
In the News Hands-on Approach to Text Steven Rozenski
Photo by Henry Vega Ortiz
One of my favorite places on earth is the seminar room at the Houghton Library; early in graduate school I vowed to take every class I taught there. In planning English 43, “Literary Arrivals: Beowulf to Milton, Cædmon to Cavendish,” this past term, I organized a pair of activities to make the trip even more meaningful: a calligraphy workshop funded by the Elson Family Arts Initiative and a bookbinding practicum funded by the Provostial Fund for the Arts and Humanities. Tomi Adeyemi ‘15 reports: “Every week we are reading these medieval texts in our nice, glossy 21st century book. Being able to attend both workshops and learn about the history of the media used to tell these stories was very enriching; getting the chance to bind our own books and practice calligraphy gave me a new appreciation for how difficult and time consuming it was for the stories we read now to even be created, let alone distributed.” The treasures of Houghton continue, I believe, to inspire, even as our own explorations in the hand-manufacture of books help us to understand the challenges faced by scribes and bookbinders in the era before the printing press.
New HarvardX Poetry Course As part of the HarvardX 2013-2014 online courses, Elisa New, Cabot Professor of American Literature launched a new web based course series, Poetry in America, which is comprised of two modules: “The Poetry of Early New England” and “Whitman.”
© Photo courtesy of HarvardX
The first module of the course—on the literature of 17th century New England—has attracted over 11,000 students worldwide. This spring, both classes will include opportunities for English concentrators to participate, on and off camera. The course was designed as a pilot program to bring high school students and teachers into closer collaboration with college students and professors. The spring course will include an array of folks from different fields, including former President Bill Clinton, rap artist Nas, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, playwright Eve Ensler, author Michael Pollan, President Drew Faust and many others. Click here to watch course trailer.
Homi K. Bhaba UNESCO Address On Tuesday, November 19, Homi Bhabha, Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities in the Department of English, addressed a Special Plenary Session of the The United Nations Education, Cultural, and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) at the General Conference in Paris, on the occasion of the installation of the Director‑General, Irina Bokova, for her second term. Click here to read Harvard Gazette article.
© Photo by Jean-Baptiste Labrune, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The Department of English is proud to announce that Leah Price has been awarded an honorable mention in the James Russell Lowell Prize from the Modern Language Association (MLA) for her book How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain.
Study Abroad We are proud to announce that two seniors, Olivia Ball and Kevin Sun, have been selected to travel and study at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India during January term. Our colleagues in the English Department at Jadavpur will arrange on-campus accommodations and student mentors to act as guides to the campus and city. During their visit they will attend literature classes and lectures, meet professors and students, and immerse themselves in the intellectual and cultural life on and around the Jadavpur campus.
Paul John Balson II Fund We are proud to announce the establishment of the Paul John Balson II Fund for the Department of English: an endowed fund set up, through the generosity and forethought of Mr. Balson ’89, to support and enhance individual and small-group instruction in the department, especially at the undergraduate level.
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â€œSink every impulse like a bolt. Secure The bastion of sensation. Do not waver Into language. Do not waver in it.â€?
~Seamus Heaney Cover and back image courtesy of the Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.