'Poets At Michigan': A reflective look of the state's native poets

Thursday, April 6, 2017 - 4:25pm

Poetry has played an integral role in literature and the arts for generations. From epic poetry to contemporary poetry, it has simultaneously reflected and created culture.

At the University itself, poets have had a far-reaching influence, impacting students, faculty and the community. To showcase these poets and their works, the Department of English Language and Literature will present the symposium “Poets at Michigan, Then and Now.”

This symposium is a part of the University of Michigan Bicentennial celebration, a celebration that also includes events like Stumbling Blocks, themed classes, Spring Festival and more. The event is comprised of three panels that are split up based on the time period.

“It’s going to cover the range of poets at Michigan,” said Cody Walker, professor of English and director of the Creative Writing minor. “We are looking at poets who taught here or were students here — sometimes both — and we begin with Robert Frost.”

The morning panel will cover Robert Frost, the Hopwood Awards and the History of Poetry at Michigan. Frost played an active role as a professor at the University, hosting many readings and engaging with Ann Arbor residents through his work. Archival research, edited letters and other information on Frost will be presented. This panel also includes the History of Poetry at Michigan and the Hopwood Awards, which are contests and prizes granted to students for their writing, established in 1931.

The next panel is titled “The Middle Years,” covering Robert Hayden, Theodore Roethke, Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon and more. Similar to the first panel, it will present a mix of research and work by the poets.

The final panel, titled “The Art Continues: Contemporary Michigan Poets,” will mostly include readings performed by current faculty or graduated MFA students. Through this structure of the symposium, each panel will highlight the changes in poetry through the years, showcasing the development of this art form through time at Michigan.

Keith Taylor, undergraduate creative writing coordinator, professor of English Laurence Goldstein, alum Paul Diamond and Walker are the creators of the event. Goldstein came up with the idea behind the celebration, and Walker became involved because he teaches a class titled “Michigan Poets, Then and Now.” The symposium will loosely follow the structure of Walker’s class.

“I hope that this is something that people will really remember as important … that it stays with them,” Walker said.

Walker acknowledged that many of the poets — like Frost and W.H. Auden — who either were students or taught at Michigan may not be widely associated with the campus community. This event could help draw attention toward Michigan’s history of poets, therefore acknowledging both the poets and the University itself.

“Frost was a presence on campus, and he helped to establish the idea that having a poet on campus might be a valuable thing, besides for teaching,” Walker said.

Walker also noted that several of the professors involved with the symposium are retiring after this year, have retired recently or will retire soon, including Nicholas Delbanco, Goldstein and Taylor. While the retirement of these professors is not the main focus of the symposium, Walker believes it is significant for them as well. The event serves not only as a public act for them, but as an act of commemoration.

“These people have been here for decades and decades and decades, and they are the institutional memories of this place,” Walker said. “The conference gets to celebrate them as these fonts of wisdom.”