Steve Charles— “Listen: there was a goat’s head hanging by ropes in a tree.”
That first line from her prize-winning poem “Song” was my introduction to the much-honored poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly. “Song” is a powerful, beautiful work that haunts me still. And any poet who starts with the command—“Listen”—like an apostle, or a village shaman—is not to be trifled with. I respect anyone who can so finely choose her words and craft her work. But a poet with such vision, with words that cut straight to the heart, and images that keep me up at night? Maybe not the person to bring to your kid’s birthday party.
So yesterday I walked with trepidation into the class in which Ms. Kelly planned to critique and “workshop” poems by students of our own poet, Marc Hudson.
I hadn’t seen their work under Marc’s teaching. Would it be like the post-adolescent drivel that so often populates undergraduate poetry collections?
Would Ms. Kelly rake the little “arteests” over the coals?
A revelation was at hand (and it was no rough beast.)
We have student poets at Wabash!
I’ll give you a few lines to taste.
From Bernard Meyer’s poem, “The Breaking”:
I feel like the ocean that remains silent
when the drowning body screams
as it is swallowed whole—feeling,
the part of the witness,
and the murderer.
From Neil Cook’s “EVV,” named after the Evansville airport:
There is no train station
in my hometown. There are
freight trains, but no
place to go to say goodbye.
Nowhere to run along
outside the window, waving
and crying and shouting, "I love you!"
From Nic Bitting’s “Winter Waters and Skies”:
A red-tailed hawk circles above me
painting his wings into
And this image from Nick Gregory’s “After the Storm”:
The aimless bodies drift apart
Two white puffs rare across blue sky
Sprout trails of fabric that hang
and writhe like the drowned folds
Of a wedding dress lost at sea.
And Ms. Kelly is as generous and skilled a teacher as she is a poet. She told the students she was impressed with the variety and freshness of their work. She involved the entire class in the discussion, and the student poets seemed inspired. Cook and Meyer were still talking about the session an hour after the class, which Marc and Ms. Kelly extended so that we could workshop more poems.
“She opened my eyes to the whole poem in ways I hadn’t seen," Marc said about her work with Bernard Meyer. And Marc is the finest nurturer of young poets I know.
After such a day, and after Ms. Kelly’s reading last night, I was reminded of a line from a 1980s Bruce Cockburn song, “Maybe the Poet”:
“Maybe you and she may not agree, but you need her to show you ways to see.”
Brigit Kelly does that for me in her poetry, and did so with her teaching and reading Thursday.
But as a 52-year-old man, I was surprised to have my jaded eyes opened by men 30 years my junior.
It’s part of the exhilaration of working here. Students you think you know surprise you— they get better at what they do, more aware of themselves and their world, become wiser before your eyes.
My faculty friends speak of the genuine pleasure of learning from their students. I think I got a taste of that yesterday.
In photos: (upper right) Brigit Pegeen Kelly talks with students as she signs books following her reading; (lower left) Neil Cook and Bernard Meyer take a closer look at their work following Ms. Kelly’s workshop.