It started with that pesky “reply all” option.
It was April 26, 2012—Poem in Your Pocket Day, according to a news story on NPR, part of National Poetry Month. How wonderful, I thought, and then shared the news via e-mail with my faculty and staff colleagues at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
The first person to respond hit “reply all,” sending her favorite poem to the whole campus. Another person did the same. Then another. And another. Soon the whole campus seemed awash in poetry. It also happened to be Project Panic Day, a whimsical name we give for the date by which seniors must submit their final projects, meaning our students were scrambling to finish critically important work, while our faculty was already busy poring over lengthy project reports. What had I done?
The humanists on our campus didn’t dominate; it was the scientists and technologists who came out in numbers. A mechanical engineer wrote, “May as well add to the variety, haven’t seen any about robots yet” before offering up Shel Silverstein’s “My Robot.” A professor of military science e-mailed me privately to ask if I knew of any local poetry slams. Our research librarian circulated the winners of the library’s 2007 haiku contest.
People shared a remarkable number of beautiful and complex poems, some familiar classics (Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” Dickinson’s “The World Feels Dusty,” Yeats’s “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”). A Pakistani-born colleague circulated what he described as “a very crude translation of a beautifully worded poem by the famous Urdu modern poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz.” Someone shared Lorine Niedecker’s “Poet’s Work”; another, Rosanna Warren’s “Simile”; and still another, Moses Rosenkranz’s “The Centaur in the City.”
A biologist explained her choice of Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica”: It reminded her that poetry is for enjoyment rather than analysis. The poem begins with an image that I imagine must resonate with a scientist who teaches cell structure: “A poem should be palpable and mute / As a globed fruit, / Dumb / As old medallions to the thumb, … ”
This poem reminds me of the preliterate origins of poetry in the breath. While MacLeish contends that a poem should be “mute,” his diction—“palpable,” “globed”—reminds us of the body, even when we read it silently. Thoreau emphasizes the word “globe” in his “Spring” chapter of Walden, describing the physical world as not “a mere fragment of dead history” but rather “living poetry.” About the word “globe,” he writes, “the guttural g adds to the meaning the capacity of the throat.”
I wonder if words like “globed,” “palpable,” and “thumb” remind the biologist who favors MacLeish’s poem of the act of touching cell cultures and other scientific materials?
Because I came to this campus after spending 12 years in a large English department with a Ph.D. program and hundreds of majors, I was surprised to discover such poetic appetite among engineers and scientists. Even the most difficult poems appealed, and I was curious to understand why. My colleague, a poet who teaches creative writing at WPI, thinks it has something to do with the aptitude for math, making me wonder, too, if scientists and engineers don’t have a more comfortable relationship with constructed things than the rest of us—an intuitive sense that poems, like other inventions, are built by human minds and hands.
I do know that my new academic community includes a lot of people who routinely read poetry, write it, and share it. The popularity of poetry slams is growing everywhere, including here in Worcester, Mass. Since sending that e-mail last year, I’ve noticed poetry turning up in other places on our technologically focused campus. At our annual Black History Month dinner, students routinely recite their original poems and canonical favorites. My department greets incoming first-year students each year with a comic poem about the importance of the arts and humanities to all students, whatever their major. Earlier this year, when we learned of the death of the much-beloved research librarian who had overseen the WPI haiku contest in 2007, one of our faculty circulated a campuswide e-mail to share a poem he had written to remember her:
RE: Sad news
Hey, Christine, how’s that haiku
About death and life and so on go?
Can you help me find it?
Poetry can commemorate both exceptional moments (the death of a loved one, a catastrophe, a profound fear or joy) and more ordinary ones, like the theft of some plums. Poetry holds those moments still. It demands that we pay attention to the ephemeral, catch it in our memory, and then (because it’s built with human language) share these fleeting epiphanies with others. An engineering colleague mentions that he has read the poems of Robert Frost when addressing a graduating class. One of his choices, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” captures the priceless but fleeting nature of experience. My colleague tells me that he had to rehearse this poem many times before being able to read it through without tears.
Today, on Poem in Your Pocket Day, volunteers from WPI’s department of humanities and arts have distributed two poems across the campus—not via e-mail, but printed on fine paper, partly because so many people on our campus have a strong aesthetic sensibility and appreciate fine craftsmanship, and partly because we want people to keep these poems and read them more than once. Our thinking is that maybe a poem hand-printed by a skilled artisan will remind us all that the humanities provide ways to express, share, and preserve our most precious human experiences.
Kristin Boudreau is a professor of English and head of the humanities and arts department at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.