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FALL 1999

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There is a certain poetic justice in the fact that Mount Holyoke is a place alive with poetry. A legacy of talent and skill here stretches back to Emily Dickinson (a student at Mount Holyoke in 1847­48) and forward to the contemporary poets who now write and teach at the College. In addition to finding abundant sources of inspiration in the natural beauty that surrounds them, student writers work in small-class settings and one-on-one with significant American poets who are members of the faculty. Through courses such as Verse Writing, Reading and Writing about Poetry, Light Verse, and Comic Verse, as well as independent studies, students are exposed to the tools and techniques of effective expression.

Well-Versed Faculty
In the vanguard of the College's efforts to teach poetry are Professor of English Robert Shaw, author of such collections as The Wonder of Seeing Double (1988) and The Post Office Murals Restored(1994); Brad Leithauser, Emily Dickinson Lecturer in English and an accomplished poet, essayist, journalist, and novelist; and Mary Jo Salter, also an Emily Dickinson Lecturer and author. Salter has served as poetry editor for the New Republicand the fourth edition of The Norton Anthology of Poetry and has edited poetry at the Atlantic Monthly.

Metrics and Inspiration
Salter says she tries to point students down paths they likely haven't explored. "Most poetry students write free verse on their own before they take my course--and will go on writing it after they leave," she says. "My goal is to show them a variety of formal strategies for writing poetry. When an inspiring subject comes their way, they will have an instinct for what form is appropriate--whether it be free verse or a sonnet. Every poem is different, and I try to teach students to veer away from easy, monotonous self-imitation."
"She can push me to do things I couldn't do on my own," says Diane Rainson '00, a Frances Perkins scholar majoring in English, of her work with Salter. In her writing, Rainson seeks to seize the ephemeral: "You're trying to capture the truth of a moment. You never quite get there, but you try." Amanda Maciel '00, who also studies with Salter, finds that the College's writing program has inspired her to experiment with different writing techniques. "I've found a link of sorts between journalism and poetry," says Maciel, who is managing editor of the Mount Holyoke News."You learn to be succinct--to make every word count." Student poets often learn to employ methods that aren't natural for them. Rainson says she tends to labor over her work; often her assignment from Salter is to work at different forms and not to agonize over them.

Accent, Meter, and Tempo
Poetry at Mount Holyoke is a vital part not only of the academic life, but of the fabric of the community. Since 1923, the annual Glascock Intercollegiate Poetry competition has brought poets from many American colleges to campus to read their poems and to have them judged by literary luminaries. Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, John Ashbery, Sylvia Plath, James Agee, and Katha Pollit have all been associated with the competition. Virginia Hamilton Adair '33, a three-time winner of the Glascock, received national acclaim for Ants on the Melon.It was the first volume of poetry published by the 83-year-old poet, who had written throughout her life without seeking publication until her poems were discovered by another poet, who sent them to the New Yorkermagazine. The College awarded Adair an honorary degree in January.

Forward Movement
Continuing Adair's legacy, Erika Dyson '99 won the Glascock last year. She says working with faculty poets has added the structure of rhyme and meter to her free verse and has revealed talents that she didn't know she had. The result was poems that present portraits of her inner landscape and the feelings and thoughts of the people she writes about. Mount Holyoke clearly is a place that attracts young writers who want to develop their poetic voice. Shannon Winston-Dolan '03 opted to attend Mount Holyoke largely because of her interest in the College's strong writing program. A writer since fifth grade, her work has been published in Purdue University-Calumet's literary journal, and she placed second in the Illinois state poetry competition as a high school student. "I wanted an atmosphere that was nourishing, with a supportive environment. I'll get that here, and I think my work will improve," she says. At the dawn of a new millennium--and in an age often associated with mechanization and a lack of opportunity for personal expression--the ancient art of poetry is still vital and relevant for many at Mount Holyoke.



Copyright © 1999 Mount Holyoke College. This page created and maintained by Don St. John. Last modified on December 23, 1999.