Jonathan Gregg speaking at a commencement dinner.

Professors Share: Poetry Appreciation Month

Professors on Poetry

April is Poetry Appreciation Month, and around Hillsdale’s campus, we take our poetry pretty seriously. We asked a few professors to share their favorite poems and what inspires them to read more poetry. Here’s what they had to say.

Dr. Barbara Bushey, Art Department
Favorite poets: Ted Kooser, Jim Harrison, Mary Oliver, William Stafford
Favorite poem: “Introduction to Winter Morning Walks” by Ted Kooser

The quarry road tumbles toward me
out of the early morning darkness,
lustrous with frost, an unrolled bolt
of softly glowing fabric, interwoven
with tiny glass beads on silver thread,
the cloth spilled out and then lovingly
smoothed by my father’s hand
as he stands behind his wooden counter
(dark as these fields) at Tilden’s Store
so many years ago. “Here,” he says smiling,
“you can make something special with this.”

Tell me about this poem! What’s so great about it?
Kooser had cancer, and part of his treatment made him particularly sensitive to sunlight. So he took his walks way early in the morning, and every day when he finished his walk, he would write a poem to Jim Harrison, another of my favorite [poets]. And they would exchange these postcards. So they’re just, you know, kind of responses to his walk and thinking about life.

[With all my favorite poets], for instance, Mary Oliver is just there like, you know, “Here we are on the planet. Better enjoy it.” And that’s really, I suppose, the similarity across them.

Would you say poetry is accessible to anyone who is willing to learn, and if so, how do you encourage readers to develop a sense for it or a love of it?
I think these poets are all very accessible because they’re so grounded in the world, and some of their problems are kind of small. Part of what I love most about poetry is its focus, and its function as an object of contemplation. If you read a whole essay, it’s useful, and it’s humans interacting, but the distillation quality of poetry is kind of what allows you to get your brain around it more immediately. And then you go on and you think about it more, and it’s bigger and bigger and bigger, but that’s what I like….

American poet Rita Dove said, “If we’re going to solve the problems of the world, we have to learn how to talk to one another. Poetry is the language at its essence. It is the bones and the skeleton of the language. It teaches you, if nothing else, how to choose your words.”

Jonathan Gregg, Lecturer of Mathematics
Favorite poem: The “Four Quartets,” in specific, “Little Gidding pt IV,” by T.S. Eliot

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

Tell me about this poem! What’s so great about it?
I actually discovered it in a class at Hillsdale, which was the singularly best class I ever took. It was an entire class on Eliot taught by someone who’s no longer here, but was wonderful.

My favorite thing about the “Four Quartets” has to do with Eliot’s story, right? So Eliot goes through this sort of clear spiritual progression in his writing where you see him early in his life being very overwhelmed with the depravity of modernity, and incredible at articulating this. So you read things like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”…and it’s just, you feel the weight of what he’s struggling with. And then you read something like “The Waste Land” or “Journey of the Magi” or something mid-career Eliot, and you see sort of a transition to be made where the world is still pretty messed up, but there’s some hope in some of these spiritual answers. And then what you have in “The Four Quartets” is this super mature Eliot…saying, “Yes I can still see the depravity in the world, but the answers from the redemption that I can find in spiritual things also make me feel like I can read the world through redeemability and not just depravity.” I think as a poem, for a lot of us who are on some kind of a spiritual journey, it’s something that encapsulates not just the place where he arrives, but it encapsulates the entirety of the journey with it.

Would you say poetry is accessible to anyone who is willing to learn, and if so, how do you encourage readers to develop a sense for it or a love of it?
I think the best poems have sort of a, I don’t want to say endless depth to them, but they can be interacted with on multiple levels…. And so poetry, I think, is accessible just as far as, even at a very basic level, the images that it leaves you with, the way it’s an emotive thing. You can read what the words are, and what emotions the words are attempting to stir up, so you can interact with it.

Poetry tends to just say, let me take this idea, put it together with this idea, and smash them together and see what happens. And so I think if you’re looking for ways to access poetry or ways to read poetry, if you’re struggling to sink your teeth into it, I would look through the lense of composition and division. What ideas is this poem saying? Well, this idea is like this idea, right? Love is like a road, you know, great, that’s a really basic one. But what does it mean to slam those two things together? Or say, this thing is not like this thing. What’s the separation? What’s the division going on there? And then you can start asking questions like, why is the poet doing this? And then there are your deeper questions, but at the very basic level, just noticing the juxtaposition that goes on in poetry, I think, is huge. It starts getting you to move from just purely, how do I feel after I read this? To actually starting to read it well.

Dr. Kelly Franklin, English Department
Favorite poem: “God’s Grandeur,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Tell me about this poem! What’s so great about it?
I must have read Hopkins in college or grad school, but I just began teaching ‘God’s Grandeur’ here at the College. Basically most of my most formative understandings of literature have happened through teaching. It’s almost always the having to articulate it to students. That really forces me to understand it. I couldn’t understand literature or write about literature the way that I do without that teaching aspect.

“The Holy Ghost over the bent world broods”—I always try to make the point [in this poem] that the world is bent, not broken, so you know, as a Catholic, he’s not maybe taking the view of total depravity or that the world is utterly wrecked by sin, but it’s twisted; it’s bent. “The Holy Ghost over the bent world broods”—and then I’m like, what does that mean? What does it mean to brood? The Holy Spirit as a mother hen is incubating creation to bring forth new life. “Over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah!” He’s astonished by it, like, the poet is astonished by it.

I’m just endlessly moved by poems like this, and that’s why I teach. I’m trying to find, you know, the greatest hits and give it right to the freshmen and sophomores especially, and I’m just such a fan of Hopkins.

Would you say poetry is accessible to anyone who is willing to learn, and if so, how do you encourage readers to develop a sense for it or a love of it?
My grandfather was only educated through the sixth grade, and he was a truck loader for his entire career. He’s a big, huge, strong guy. And he just, that’s what he did. He loaded trucks. In his free time, among other things, he would sit down and read John Milton. So if you can read, you can read poetry. Doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, or you’re going to understand everything. But certainly, if my sixth-grade educated grandfather…could read Milton, you can too.

Start by reading the greats, so get a little anthology of poems with the really good stuff and see what you like. The other thing I would say would be, most of the good things in life take practice or guidance. So I think if you want to understand poetry, you gotta devote some time to it, and get guidance from other readers and teachers of poetry. [And also,] accept the presence of mystery. I think some people will read a poem and be like, well, I don’t understand it. And I think there are actual parts of great art that we can’t maybe always understand everything about. And that’s okay. I think you have to accept that mysterious element in some parts of reality.

I do really think there’s a kind of conversation that you need to familiarize yourself with, and then it will start to make more sense. So that’s kind of what we try to do in the Great Books courses, because I want my sophomores, when they leave the second semester of Great Books, now to be equipped to enter into that conversation because they’ve read Homer and Virgil and Dante and Milton, et cetera. And that’s what I try to tell them on their way out. “Now you’re ready. Welcome to the tradition.”

Cecelia Pletan, ‘19, is a senior from Texas studying literature. She looks up to writers like TS Eliot, William Faulkner, and Taylor Swift. When she’s not pretending to do important homework in AJ’s, you can find her watching way too many TED talks and biking along Lake Baw Beese.

Published in May 2019