A serious poet teaches serious play

Professor Lew Klatt, accomplished poet and essayist, loves showing students how to play with words.


  •   Author: Jacob Thielman
  •   Published: October 2, 2019
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Serious play

“Creative writing in general is a place where language is living,” muses poet and professor Lew Klatt. He is leaned back in his office chair, surrounded by teetering stacks of books, and his eyes are bright. He is talking about why he loves teaching poetry.

“Poetry is a language event,” he says. “It’s where language struts it stuff. It’s where it shows off and performs and does everything it is capable of doing.”

Prof. Klatt is excited about helping students see what language can do. Language is musical, optic, a renewable resource, an aesthetic experience erupting from printed words on a page.

And Prof. Klatt is the most capable guide you could ask for in exploring what language can do. He has produced a steady stream of poems and essays for more than fifteen years.

His books of poetry have won the Juniper Prize and the Iowa Poetry Prize, and he served as the poet laureate of Grand Rapids between 2014 and 2017. His fourth book, The Wilderness After Which, was published in 2017.

Students come away from his classes thinking of language as “serious play.” There is so much pressure to be pragmatic, so much pressure to be materialistic that Prof. Klatt says he admires the courage of students who step into his classes and begin to play with words.

When they do, they start to see that words open up secret doors and hidden windows into the world that God has made.

He shines in all that’s fair

Prof. Klatt is passionate about this: language is an incredible gift from God. That’s why his classroom goal, in his words, is to “bring out language in its fullest manifestation.” Being a full participant in culture is part of our calling as believers.

According to Prof. Klatt, Calvin’s Reformed tradition provides a bedrock that is uniquely suited to studying poetry. When he became a follower of Christ in high school, Prof. Klatt did not feel that his love for the English language could translate into a vocation—at least, not a vocation that wasn’t frivolous.

The Reformed tradition liberated him from this point of view. Nothing could be closer to God’s heart than the expression of his created reality with the full power of our words.

Breaking new ground

Prof. Klatt says that whenever he completes a book, there is always this feeling: How can I do anything new or different? But, as he puts it, language is a renewable resource, and lately he has set out to demonstrate that truth.

His latest project is to work his way through the stories of Flannery O’Connor and write poems inspired by each one. But there’s a catch: Prof. Klatt is only using vocabulary drawn directly from the stories themselves.

“How do I understand O’Connor through her register, that is, the kinds of words she has chosen to use, that are natural for her to use?”

The challenge is to express himself using only the words O’Connor has used to express herself. Prof. Klatt is curious as to whether it deepens his understanding of the brilliant storyteller to pick up her tools and see if he can use them as well.

  •   Author: Jacob Thielman
  •   Published: October 2, 2019

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