|McGee Visiting Writer Henri Cole Will Present Reading of His Poems
January 26, 2007
Contact: Bill Giduz
Even more than inspiring Davidson students to write poetry this semester, Henri Cole hopes to help them become better readers.
“I like teaching undergraduates,” said Cole, the McGee Visiting Professor of Writing. “They haven’t been imprinted with the professional side of becoming a writer. They’re much more open to the pleasures of sound. There’s something more authentic about their curiosity.”
Cole, a much-honored writer whose six books of poetry include a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, will present a public reading from his work on Thursday evening, February 1. There is no charge to attend the event, which begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Smith 900 Room of the Alvarez College Union on the Davidson campus. A book signing and reception will follow his presentation.
His awards and prizes include a recent Guggenheim Fellowship, Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In addition to writing poetry, his service to the art also included holding the post from 1982-1988 of executive director of The Academy of American Poets, the foremost organization in the country to support poets and foster the appreciation of contemporary poetry.
Experience Guides Classroom Lessons
Cole brings to the Davidson classroom a pedagogy well-honed by teaching poetry at a dozen different colleges and universities over the past twenty-seven years. He puts his introductory poetry class through what he calls “prosody boot camp,” the study of basic form and meter. “It’s like learning to draw before you learn to paint,” he said. “I want them to be able to understand the musical shaping of poetry before they worry about plot.”
Students in his advanced poetry class read several volumes of contemporary American poetry and discuss them. They also write sonnets, and Cole works to refine their understanding of “intensity and compression.” “The idea is that the bottle – or form – makes the genie inside stronger,” he explained.
He also enforces an old-fashioned lesson on students by assigning them to memorize and recite a poem every other week. “When you memorize, you’re like a surgeon cutting open a patient,” he said. “You’re as close as you can get to a poem without being its author. You really hear it and understand it when you memorize it. Students fear that assignment at the beginning, but they take competitive delight in it by the end of the course.”
Some students may also consider Cole old-fashioned in his insistence that they not communicate with him via e-mail. “I don’t like the distancing aspect of electronic communications,” he said. “I’ve come a long way to be at Davidson and I’d much rather sit with students face to face than shoot e-mails back and forth.”
A Poet of Universal Themes
Cole’s poetry has been praised for its “amazing clarity of vision and purity of diction.” He writes mostly free verse sonnets about universal themes like love, death, and nature. He appreciates landscapes, and is thrilled that his third floor office in Chambers looks out directly into the canopy of oak trees in Richardson Plaza.His own yard in Boston, the city he has called home for the past thirteen years, is protected by towering sycamores.
The New Yorker review of his third book, The Look of Things, describes his tremendous range of expression. “He can understate, can step back with courtly distance from the scene he is describing; in stanzas as shapely as topiary he can salute a visual world he honestly loves; he can write about the soul stumbling against quotidian impediments.”
Truth, he says, is the basis of all good art, so he doesn’t want to be dishonest. “You scratch the surface of most situations and you find something raw,” he said.
The experiences of youth also provided inspiration to his beginning to write poetry in college. He didn’t understand the French and Armenian languages spoken at home, so he learned instead to comprehend tone. He wrote, “Hearing this braid of languages regularly spoken heightened my sense of words as a kind of loge in which desires were illuminated, memory was recovered, and poems would be assembled.”
Excerpts from his 1998 book, “The Visible Man” are available at this web site.
Davidson Felt Comfortably Familiar
Cole accepted Davidson’s offer of the McGee Professorship based on the warm response he felt from students and writing program director Alan Michael Parker, associate professor of English, during a visit eighteen months ago to give a reading here. The campus reminded him of his own alma mater, The College of William and Mary, where he was teaching at the time. He was also curious to learn more about his late father, who was reared near Rockingham, and whose parents were tenant farmers, growing peaches and tobacco. Cole’s father joined the Air Force and raised his own family on bases around the world.
On his first weekend in Davidson, Cole drove to Rockingham and found his father’s gravesite. “I thought it would be interesting to see the landscape and life that shaped him,” Cole said.
Cole will be working on several projects while in residence at Davidson. His sixth book, Blackbird and Wolf, will be published in April, and he is working now on poems for a seventh volume. He is also interested in non-fiction prose, and is dabbling in works about art and people.
He’s also tremendously excited about his ongoing collaboration with visual artist Jenny Holzer, who expresses text in neon installations, and projections in light on buildings such as the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Seven World Trade Center. Holzer has used Cole’s poems as the text for some of her creations. There are many images of Holzer’s work available on the Internet.
Cole explains that the collaboration helps him scratch an unfulfilled artistic itch. “I envy the physicality of visual artists,” he said. “Writers are desk oriented, cerebral and cool. I like the idea of material, of banging and sculpting something. None of that comes in writing poetry. That’s probably why I like swimming and bicycling. It helps me break out of the intensity of concentration.”
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,700 students. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked in the top ten liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine.
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Posted By: Bill Giduz