Posted: April 22, 2009
Poetry was in the air at Mount Holyoke College at the start of the third weekend of April as sophomore Emily Yates took first place in the 86th Kathryn Irene Glascock Intercollegiate Poetry Competition. Georgia Pearle of Smith College took second place.
Metaphors and images were flying all over the place during the storied assembly crafted to celebrate an art form by bringing seasoned practitioners together with promising youth. “...if life’s a loaf, a poem is a slice,” Rachel Hadas, a three-time judge, read to a packed Stimson Room on the sixth floor of the Williston Library on a Saturday morning. She was reading from her poem “Home Remedy,” due to appear in her forthcoming book The Ache of Appetite. It was part of the culminating event of a 24-hour gathering that began on Friday April 17, with a Q&A with the judges on all topics poetry in the afternoon, followed by a public reading in the evening by this year’s contestants.
The oak bookcases around the perimeter of the crimson-carpeted Stimson Room, which has a bowed ceiling, plush seating, and a large leaded window to the east, displayed artifacts of Glascock glory as well as the works and biographies of this year’s judges. By virtue of being there, they famously follow in the footsteps of Robert Frost, who served on the first panel of deciders in 1924. Among the poems on view was the typed manuscript of “Lament,” one of Sylvia Plath’s Glascock entries in 1955, the year she graduated from Smith College. Among the observations Plath shared about her father in the villanelle, a French verse form with a tightly prescribed template, is that, “He counted the guns of god a bother, laughed at the ambush of Angels’ tongues... .”
Besides Yates, a North Carolina native who just recently declared herself an English major at Mount Holyoke, this year’s contestants also came from the University of Pittsburgh, American University, Bennington College, Smith College, and Yale University. Evaluating their relative facility with words, images, and lyricism was challenging, according to Erica Dawson, 29, the youngest member of the judging panel. “All of the young ladies are ridiculously talented and mature beyond their years. We just had to sort things out and we knew we had to pick somebody so we did,” said Dawson. She herself was a contestant in 2001 and remembers being “crushed” at not winning.
Yates said she became aware of the competition when Sara London, a visiting lecturer, told her class about it. “I thought it would be interesting just to try compiling a collection of work and just giving it a shot,” said Yates. She has been writing poetry for almost as long as she can remember, but started taking it seriously during her junior year in high school. Some of her images delved overtly into what words can reveal.
The final lines of “Record, Erase, Repeat,” a poem in which Yates muses on missives across time in the form of a discovered stack of letters, are, “Each word is an ink-stained yesterday. Each letter, a dusty jack-in-the-box shelved in a stranger’s attic.”
In a poem about her love-hate relationship with her hometown titled “Winston-Salem, North Carolina,” Yates tosses off images like, “I scrubbed your vomit-stained sheets. But you kept at it, kept spitting up your deep-fry, bless her heart she’s a drunk...,” and then, reflecting on the “backdoor” to a place she holds dear, remarks, “some days you’re the red clay, the creek bed, the squash swarming with yellow jackets. You’re the skinny dipping summer I lost my shame to.”
Dawson, who published her first book of poetry, titled Big-Eyed Afraid, two years ago, called Yates’s work “polished,” adding that her “images were alive and vivid,” and that her poems had “a certain quality that made them very re-readable.”
Baron Wormser, the author of seven volumes of poetry who counts among his literary achievements having served a five-year term as the poet laureate of the state of Maine, was the third judge.
Hadas, the author of many books of poetry and the recipient of high honors such as a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Ingram Merrill Foundation grant, and an award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, allowed at the end of the competition that Yates was a relatively easy choice to win the contest. Hadas noticed that the entries as a whole had a backward-looking quality. “I think that often gifted young people are quite nostalgic and they are tilted more to the past than they are to the future or the present,” Hadas said. In deciding on her favorite among the contestants she was looking for originality and consistently good writing. “The other rule of thumb for me is, how memorable is it?” she said.
Part of the Glascock mystique is that young writers who aspire to a life of letters get to not only mingle with established, and sometimes very famous, poets, but also to get critiqued by them.
Among the papers on show in the Stimson Room was a pair of letters written by William Carlos Williams in May 1942 to two of the contestants that year. The letters, which were sealed for 50 years until 1992, contain frank criticism as well as praise. “That I did not give you my vote for first place is due to a somewhat plodding character of the poem as a whole. This you will correct in time but at the moment the lyric touch is undeveloped,” Williams wrote to one of the losers. “The impatience with all literary restrictions might be your undoing,” Williams continues. “Why bother with poems when you can say so much better what you are burning to say in straight sentences. That is your danger. Remember, verse is a construction in which you may embody the bones of a new age.”
His message to the winning contestant that year began, “To hell with you. I voted for you so why should I bother to do anything else,” quickly going on to warn the young poet that if he ever catches him displaying, “one touch of mawkishness... I’ll throw you out the window.” His affection for the contestant’s output comes through in several passages in the letter. “You do, however, have the touch – now let’s see you penetrate,” wrote Williams. “You, more than most of the others in the contest, seem to realize the meaning of song. The words have a rightness.”
The competition, named for Kathryn Irene Glascock, who died soon after graduating from Mount Holyoke in 1923, is a place to vie for a prestigious prize that carries within it the promise of undergraduate students of the past who went on to greatness. Among them are Plath and others like James Merrill, Kenneth Koch, Donald Hall, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. It is also a time and a place to gather, discuss, and celebrate poetic expression.
Dawson said, “It means a great deal to me to finally get to the point where I can call myself a poet and be part of such a huge tradition that spans centuries and continents, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.”
Hadas, who shared with the audience personal difficulties she is currently going through relating to the health of a loved one, spoke of another function of poetry, as a salve for emotional wounds and scars. “Sometimes life will pick you up and put you in a place you didn’t expect. And one of the wonderful things about poetry, as James Merrill said, [is that] language is a life raft. So poetry will help float you over some pretty rough places.” She ended the poem on poetry that she read with this: “...think of the poem finally as the home remedy for the ache of appetite.”
Listen to Emily Yates ’11 read "Wildfire" (Download - 480 kB, 1 minute)