|The president, the poet and the university|
|Posted Wednesday, May 23, 2012 4:53 PM|
|It’s a lucky thing, to have a university president who loves poetry and is willing to share it. For me, as a writer and lover of poetry teaching in the department of computer science, it’s particularly remarkable that our president (a computer scientist) models how poetry enhances not just his personal life, but also his professional goals. On Thursday, May 10, President David Barnard hosted the second “The President and the Poet.” Two years ago he hosted Irish poet Michael O’Siadhail and this year he hosted esteemed Canadian poet Jan Zwicky. Both evenings were steeped in the challenging beauty of poetry and I feel glad that President Barnard is willing describe how poetry shapes his life and his vision of the life of the university. |
Held in the Pembina Hall Student Lounge (formerly University Club), the room was wrapped in silver and black. A string quartet played in homage of Jan Zwicky’s deep love and study of classical music; not only does Zwicky respond to music in her poetry, she is also a concert violinist. The tables were adorned with fresh flowers; when Zwicky isn’t thinking, writing, or practicing, she gardens.
President Barnard began the evening with a talk on why he loves poetry, and why he uses it in his work at the university.
“Poetry was a road from a small world into a bigger world,” he said, crediting his parents for introducing him to poems that were “exceptionally meaningful,” citing Browning, Eliot, Shakespeare, Tennyson and Milton.
Why does he use poetry in his role as the president? People respond to it, he says simply. When he uses poetry in his speeches people thank him and tell him it meant something to them.
Barnard cited Joseph Bottom’s “Hidden Life” in his inaugural address and Michael O’Siadhail’s “Largesse,” which he uses when meeting with new faculty members. According to Barnard, “Largesse” illustrates the possibility of the university creating an environment where people are generous to each other, an environment that will be remembered in people’s lives.
Barnard read Zwicky’s poem “Musicians,” the same poem he cited on the day his presidency was announced. It’s a poem about a group of musicians, standing on the street after a rehearsal: “you can see they’re still breathing almost in unison…even the gravel dust stuttering at their feet is coherent.” His voice full of emotion, President Barnard explained that this poem makes him imagine a university experience that is so deeply meaningful we never want to let go of it.
When Jan Zwicky started reading, she first thanked Barnard for sharing poetry with more than its usual audience of other poets. Then she read poems about the prairies. Although Zwicky now lives in the Quadra Islands of the BC coast, she grew up in the Alberta prairies, and told the audience “although the place I live is very beautiful… it is more beautiful here.”
Zwicky read from three of her six books of poetry, including Songs for Relinquishing the Earth which won a Govenor General award in 1999 and her latest Forge, which is currently up for the Griffin Award for Poetry.
I loved her humour in the poems she read from Thirty-seven Small Songs & Thirteen Silences, including “Small song in praise of baths.”
Bath, don’t be jealous!
The shower’s just a show-off.
A crowd favourite was “Bone song” from Robinson’s Crossing:
Bones, my thanks
for your support,
your efforts to convince the world
that I can stand up for myself.
Zwicky, whose PhD is in the philosophy of logic and science, also read from poems that use lyricism to respond to our human capacity for technology. After reading from her prose, Zwicky ended by reading from Forge, her newest book of poetry and also the darkest and most political selections of the evening.
When the reading ended, people lined up to buy Zwicky’s books and to eat more chevre-stuffed mushrooms. I left feeling more hopeful. Poetry is about sharing a deep understanding of the world, and this was a beautiful evening that left me feeling part of that world.
- By Christina Penner
Christina Penner teaches computer science at the U of M. Her research interests include new media texts and the interplay between creative and technical writing. Widows of Hamilton House, her first novel, was shortlisted for three Manitoba book awards, and she currently is at work on a new novel about an engineer compelled to build a secret room in the Salk Institute, a research centre renowned for its architectural beauty and world-class biological research.
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