Poe Sat: Hillsdale’s Poetry Underground

Written by Jacquelyn Eubanks

It’s a cool night in autumn. The massive, orange harvest moon drapes the street in soft light, leading you down the leaf-smattered sidewalk. As you walk, the sound of singing captures your attention. You glance up ahead to a house with a small front porch and all the lights on. If you chance to go inside, you’ll find an assortment of mugs and a steaming teapot. You’ll notice hardcover books with yellowing pages scattered over couches and coffee tables, names like Whitman or Frost printed subtly across plain covers. You’ll be invited to gather in a circle in the middle of a quaint living room, sling your arms over shoulders, and sing old Irish folk songs. Welcome to Poetry Saturdays, or Poe Sat, as the regulars call it.

This tradition of congregating at an off-campus house on a weekend evening to read poetry aloud is not an official Hillsdale College club. Rather, it’s an intimate gathering that’s been gaining popularity through word-of-mouth for several years, slowly attracting a larger group every year. Currently it happens at Ithaka, the colloquial name for the house of Hillsdale student Ben Evans, class of ’19.

Like most people who attend this Saturday night gathering, Ben learned of it by happenstance and decided to tag along.

“The first time I heard about it, I just happened to sit at the right table in the cafeteria,” Ben recalled. He was a freshman at the time. “Some guys at the table were from an off-campus house called the Donnybrook. Somehow I got invited to go to Poetry Friday. So I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.”

His first night, the group read a variety of poems by T.S. Eliot. “I hadn’t had a whole lot of exposure to poetry,” Ben said. “But I definitely felt welcome there.” He was hooked, and he made sure to attend every Poetry Friday that he knew of from then on. He was the only freshman who came regularly, and gatherings were typically small—sometimes just three people. The group was mostly upperclassmen, which turned out to be a treasure.

“I got to know a senior that I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten to know, and a few other upperclassmen who lived off campus,” Ben said. In particular, he became close with Tomas Valle, ’16, who hosted the gatherings at Ithaka during Ben’s sophomore year. When Tomas graduated, Ben ended up taking the reins.

Now the group meets on Saturdays at 7 p.m., and students continue to attend any time they like. Sometimes the living room is so crowded that people sit on the floor and crowd into doorways; other times, there are only a handful of people. Tea is made, pastries are shared. While the winter wind whistles outside, making the house creak, students settle into armchairs and onto sofas. The room is silent. Fingers flip through pages, eyes roam over words, until a poem piques someone’s interest. Looking around and seeing that no one else is ready, the reader clears her throat and speaks the words into existence: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…”

After an hour, sometimes more, the group has had their fill of poetry. Everyone stands and huddles into a circle. Newcomers hold a stapled packet of lyrics. Song titles are tossed around—“Loch Lomond,” a freshman boy requests. “Sally Brown,” suggests a sophomore girl. The group bellows the baleful or jolly Irish tunes, always concluding the night with “Parting Glass.” When the singing ends, many choose to stay and strike up conversations. It is fertile soil for friendship and intellectual discussion.

Poe Sat shaped Ben’s time at Hillsdale. For Ben, the literature, the content, the act of reading out loud, and the sense of community are what make this so special. He wouldn’t even be living in Ithaka now if it weren’t for Poetry Fridays. Although he expects one of the rising junior boys to take it over next year, he isn’t going anywhere. “I’ll still go to every one,” he said. “It’s been one of my favorite extracurricular things. I would hate to see it die.”

With a growing number of committed freshmen and sophomores, Poe Sat isn’t dying any time soon.

Jacky Eubanks Jacquelyn Eubanks, ’20, is a politics major with a penchant for writing. She spends most of her time as a coffee-sipping novelist dreaming of life as a fast-paced urbanite à la “Friends.” You can find her currently on social media (@TheJackyEubanks) and hopefully someday atop a mountain.

Published in February 2019.