Nineteenth century writer Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” With a growing interest in poetry around campus and the recent advent of the English major’s writing track, perhaps poets are quietly running Calvin, too.
If the poets have come to power, it would be hard to find a better wordsmith-in-chief than English professor and poetic prodigy Lew Klatt. Known as L.S. Klatt in the literary world, he took home the Juniper Prize for Poetry for his first book of verse, Interloper, and the Iowa Poetry Prize for his second collection, Cloud of Ink.
When asked why poetry matters, Klatt points not only to Shelley’s perspective, but also to the pages of Plato’s The Republic. In The Republic, Plato lays out his plan for an ideal society—a plan that includes ridding the municipality of poets.
Klatt explains what may be behind the philosopher’s reasoning: “He’s saying, ‘Look, if you really want to control the people, if you want to govern them, you have to capture their imagination. And you can’t have other people who are free-thinkers—who are going to commandeer their allegiance and their loyalty.’”
The kind of imagination and free thinking that poetry encourages may seem dangerous to some. But at Calvin, growing interest in the speculative craft is considered reason for celebration.
The ‘habit of paying attention’
Klatt recently received a Calvin Alumni Association faculty grant to visit New York City art museums as inspiration for ekphrastic poetry. For Klatt, poetry is a way of slowing down to observe the world—including visual art—in an intentional way.
“In this culture,” he said, “we’re moving so quickly, so fast, and often uncritically; and we’re missing so many things… . Poetry gives us that space to think about what we’re saying and how we’re saying it.”
Professor of English Jane Zwart, whose poetry has been published in a variety of publications including Boston Review and The Christian Century, sees poetry as a “habit of paying attention”—of experiencing the everyday in fresh, new ways. Zwart said that her own poems usually start with an image, though the images do not always come in traditional forms.
“Maybe it’s an image in an art museum,” she said, “but often it’s just something that you see walking home from the bus stop.” Zwart offers an example: “There’s this amazingly formed orange peel without an orange in it by the side of the sidewalk, and for some reason—I don’t know what it’s about—it’s enough to start me thinking.”
Otto Selles, a professor of French at Calvin and an avid poet in his native language of English, jots down ideas and conversation fragments throughout the day to fuel his imagination when he sits down to write. As the author of a poetry collection, New Songs, Selles speaks from experience when he says the keys to poetic success are taking notes, making time to write and being open to new ideas. “It’s not starting with a preconceived idea of what you want to write,” he advised.
Calvin alumnus Casey Nagle ’08 agrees. “In the past, whenever I wanted my poems to have a specific meaning, or make a point, or directly address an issue, I started finishing poems in one sitting. [Those poems] were boring and probably couldn’t really be called poetry,” said the English major, who is pursuing a master of fine arts (MFA) in creative writing at Syracuse University.
Faith and verse
Some Christians may not be keen on the idea of poetic wanderings at first. After all, believers find solid ground in the truth of the Bible, and confessing those truths is a natural part of faithful expression—poetic or otherwise. But professors Klatt, Selles and Zwart would argue that a life of poetry is congruent with a life of faith.
“It is that question of being at once brave and embracing that newness, and being faithful and embracing the confessions,” said Zwart on the challenge of Christian poets.
Nagle found the courage of the Christian academic community at Calvin to be formative in his writing. “I valued the intellectual bravery of many of my professors,” recalled the English major, who hopes to teach at the collegiate level. “If you’re sure of the truthfulness of your beliefs, then you should be unafraid of criticism and welcome all topics of discussion. Many professors exhibited this bravery, and I grew as a person because of it.”
Zwart, who used the form of a psalm when she wrote the commemorative poem for President Michael Le Roy’s inauguration ceremony, sees the work of the Christian poet similarly to that of the psalmists—aiming more to explore emotions honestly than to capture the fullness of the Bible’s theology.
Klatt agreed. “Sometimes you’re going to have the sort of wild, apocalyptic stuff of the prophets,” he said, “and sometimes you’re going to have the simplicity and the lyricism of Song of Solomon.”
Klatt hopes his students recognize that “not every poem has to be some kind of faith statement in the creedal sense or that it has to contain all the Reformed themes—creation, fall, redemption, consummation—all the time.” He asks fellow poets of faith to “trust that somehow, in the oeuvre of one’s work, one will eventually touch on all the dimensions.”
Klatt looks for poetry that explores one emotional dimension in particular: joy. However, the type of joy he seeks strays from conventional definitions.
“Joy is not necessarily happy-go-lucky,” he acknowledged, quoting from Hebrews 12:12 as an example of Christ’s joy: “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (NIV).
“What kind of a joy is that?” Klatt asked. “It’s a joy that many of us have only begun to enter into.”
At Calvin, students continue to explore poetry through an annual spoken word poetry jam, English department readings and courses dedicated to the craft—both as literature and as creative writing. And, in typical Calvin fashion, these opportunities are relished by students not only in the English department, but from a variety of disciplines.
Selles offers insight into poetry’s popularity, both on campus and off: “I always think: Could you live without music? Could you live without art? Could you live without poetry? And maybe you could. But then go back and think; living with these things, what do you gain?”