Lives of the Poets
Some famous ones have passed through Ann Arbor. Others have planted deep roots.
by Jan Schlain
From the February, 2021 issue
One wintry January in 1986 four poets-Wendell Berry, Galway Kinnell, Seamus Heaney, and Donald Hall-each read their poetry for forty minutes at Rackham Auditorium. The tickets were $5, and it was a sellout.
Former English department chair John Knott marvels at the memory of "people scalping tickets for a poetry reading on the steps of Rackham. And that was repeated after a while, with a change in personnel, but it was always first-rate poets-and it was very much open to the community."
It wasn't the first time scalpers descended on a poetry reading-in 1962, Robert Frost sold out Hill Auditorium. It was a nostalgic reunion for Frost, who had been the U-M's poet in residence for several years in the 1920s. According to a 1987 Observer article by Peter Tiernan, Frost had tangled with administrators who wanted him to engage more actively with students but also wrote one of his most beloved poems, "Acquainted with the Night" and helped the editors of an undergraduate magazine launch an all-star series of poetry readings at Hill. (Carl Sandburg left him thoroughly unimpressed-in a letter, Frost called him "probably the most artificial and studied ruffian the world has had.")
"There weren't many-if any- premiere institutions that early on [that were] making a commitment to teach the writing of an art to their students," says local poet Keith Taylor. "That put Michigan in a unique place."
In a 2018 Michigan Quarterly Review article, "Poets at the University of Michigan, 1925 to 1980," Laurence Goldstein took a charitable view of Frost's testy relationship with the university. "It's almost axiomatic," he wrote, "that poets will center some of their adolescent feelings of resentment on the academic institutions that both empower their consciousness and challenge their visceral impulses."
Goldstein described W.H. Auden, who took a one-year appointment as an associate professor at U-M in 1941-42, as "arguably the most important and often-imitated of all younger poets writing in English." Yet then-undergrad Charles Miller
recalled Auden modestly writing his name on the blackboard at the first session of English 135, "wearing a faded jersey sport shirt, blue jeans and torn tennis shoes" and telling his twenty-five students "no notetaking, please … You won't be quizzed on what I say but on what you THINK about the great books we shall read and discuss." In a 1983 memoir, Auden also held "at home" sessions where he invited students over for "unrestrained talk, music and coffee."
Auden and Miller had met when the poet gave a talk at the U-M the previous year. Miller recalled the poet insisting that as the only person he knew in Ann Arbor, he share the house the university had leased for Auden on Pontiac Tr.
Even in that closeted era Auden's homosexuality was widely known, while Miller was straight. The visiting professor assured the undergrad that "I've been in love with the same man for several years, and I'm not interested in any other person." That semester, Miller cooked for Auden, helped him buy a used Pontiac, taught him to drive it-and flinched in the passenger seat when the nearsighted poet floored it to test its top speed.
When Goldstein arrived in Ann Arbor in 1970, there were three important poets on the faculty: Donald Hall, Robert Hayden, and Radcliffe Squires. Both Hayden and Hall would eventually become U.S. poet laureates (Hayden under its original title as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress).
Hayden, the first African American poet laureate, "was a major figure," says Taylor. But it was Hall, Goldstein wrote, who "was the most successful in forging a bond with the University of Michigan during his twenty-year tenure, 1957-1977, and spreading the word about 'the pleasures of poetry,' to cite the title of his popular textbook, throughout the country."
"What Bo Schembechler was to Michigan football, Donald Hall was to Michigan poetry," fellow poet Richard Tillinghast wrote in the Winter 2018 Michigan Quarterly Review. "Everything revolved around Don, with his magnificent full beard, his outgoing personality and genius for networking, his legendary parties, his friendships with poets. His "Kicking the Leaves" poem is a perfect Ann Arbor football Saturday poem."
Even in Frost's time, poets didn't earn much from their poems-he'd been looking for a university position because he needed the money. But The Pleasures of Poetry and the still more popular Writing Well-a required text in my U-M freshman English class-eventually enabled Hall to, in the words of a 1986 Observer article, "escape from tenure." He and Jane Kenyon, his wife and former student, moved to his family's farm in New Hampshire, where they devoted their remaining decades to writing.
Keith Taylor arrived a few years later. He had completed a master's at Central Michigan University, and when his art-student girlfriend transferred to the U-M, Taylor tagged along. (Christine Golus now co-owns design firm QLTD., which no doubt explains why her husband has such a beautiful website.)
Taylor initially took an "awful job" working in the basement of Ulrich's bookstore, "processing massive boxes of books." From there he moved to Borders Books, and in 1989 to Shaman Drum.
What he calls Karl Pohrt's "little two-story bookstore on State St." was a godsend for poets. "There would be readings four nights a week at Shaman Drum, sometimes more," Taylor recalls. "And then it became a real center.
"Karl was dedicated to it, and selling poetry is a little different than selling other kinds of books. You have to be a little more patient, and you foreground them a little more, and Karl was great for that. He was into the world and life of poetry."
Taylor left the store in 2000 to run the English department's sub-concentration in creative writing. "They really weren't sure they wanted anybody who would [be eligible for] tenure to direct that because they thought it would be time-consuming, so they asked me," he says. "So they created this position for me and kept it officially half-time, so I would not get overwhelmed by teaching freshman comp, which I did not want to do." He kept the job until he retired a couple of years ago.
Shaman Drum closed in 2009 and Pohrt died in 2013. But the community of poets the store nurtured continues.
When Linda Gregerson joined the U-M English faculty in 1987, she recalls, a friend of a colleague at The Atlantic told her to look up someone she knew here. "You really must meet him," the friend said. "He works at this great bookstore. He's just a terrific person."
"That person was Keith Taylor, who is Mr. Ann Arbor," Gregerson says. She met Taylor and thought, 'Yeah, I can be at home here. I can live here.'"
Ann Arbor is "a fantastic place to be a poet," Gregerson says, because "there are just such great people here. It's a generous community."
Gregerson first lived "right smack-dab in Burns Park," and when her kids were little "it was just fantastic." Now she lives north of town, off Joy Rd. During this past "Covid summer, it meant I could ride on country roads on my bicycle every day." She wrote a poem about the deer she sees passing through her yard.
"I think place and its particularities can, in a really good way, intrude upon or sort of pierce obsessional thinking," Gregerson says. "I'm not sure the sense of weddedness to place is exclusive to poets, but certainly place surfaces differently in poetry than it does in prose."
But Gregerson isn't retreating from the world, and she doesn't think poetry is, either. She currently is wrapping up a six-year term as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, whose website-poets.org-invites people to "sign up and get a poem every day" by email. "Tens and tens of thousands of people subscribe."
Her favorite program, though, is called "Dear Poet." Every year poets make videos of themselves reading one of their poems, and the videos are then made available "as a sort of package to middle school and high school teachers all across the United States. They're invited to use these in the classroom and to invite their students to choose one of the poets to whom they write a letter … Dear Poet. And hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these come in!"
"There is a schoolteacher in a tiny town called Butternut, Wisconsin, who uses this 'Dear Poet' opportunity every single year. … The town has like 356 people living in it! It's a tiny town. And the picture you get when you Google it is of a highway with something like a Tasty Freeze on the side of it. And I got this wonderful letter from a girl that was filled with questions-'The poem you read sounds like you don't like big cities … What is it about Chicago? - What's it like to be a poet? Have you ever been on television? Would you ever come to Butternut some day?'
"It's thrilling to think that actual living human beings out there, who aren't at universities and required to go to poetry readings, are experiencing these things and have thoughts about poems they encounter," Gregerson says. "It's completely thrilling."
"A poem is language at its highest powers," emails Alice Fulton, who taught at Michigan from 1983 to 2002. "Poets aren't paid to publish; there's little money in it, and that opens aesthetic doors. There's no commercial pressure, no script, no temptation- unless poets are tempted by the prospect of a zillion followers on Twitter. Because there's little money changing hands, poets can write exactly the poem that pleases them. It's a great freedom and part of what allows poetry to be an art rather than a product."
Asked about poetry's popularity, Donald Hall once joked, "I don't think it will ever replace sex or baseball." Even selling out Hill Auditorium, as Frost did in 1962, is hard to imagine today. Is Fulton concerned that poetry's place in the culture has slipped?
"Perhaps the concept of 'poet' as a romantic figure has waned," she emails, "but since the unleashing of social media-Twitter, Instagram-I think there's been something of a poetic renaissance." And new poets are bringing new subjects: "People of color and the LGBT community are publishing poems about experiences that previously were censored, repressed or written in a coded way," Fulton writes. "This infusion of new, important content has revitalized poetry-much as feminism did in the 1970s."
Gregerson points to Sumita Chakraborty, the English Department's Helen Zell Visiting Professor in Poetry. She has a doctorate in women's studies from Emory University, and Gregerson calls her "a force of nature."
"I think the University of Michigan has such a wonderful environment for writers and for visitors," Chakraborty says-"the number of reading series we have, and also independent bookstores … I was certainly looking forward to being in a place with such a strong literary culture." And not just in Ann Arbor: "I felt incredibly welcomed and excited about the literary communities in Detroit and in Ypsilanti as well."
Like Gregerson, Chakraborty sees their art flourishing in new spaces. "Poetry is increasingly popular on social media," she points out. "Poetry is a very, very old art form. As Audre Lorde said, 'There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.'"
In her teaching, Chakraborty usually picks and pairs individual poems. But during the pandemic, she instead is assigning full collections. "I think it has helped us have more of a communal feeling," she says, and her students are responding to it "very, very well."
Sarah Messer came to Michigan for grad school, not because Frost and Auden had been here, but because "Alice Fulton was teaching here then, and I really loved her work … I wanted to work with Alice."
While she was here, she also "met my Buddhist teacher, who started White Lotus Farms." After getting her master's degree, she "hung around a little bit … I painted houses and taught composition." But as a place to settle down, Ann Arbor "wasn't on my radar," she says.
She taught for a year in Massachusetts, and then "got kind of on a fellowship junket … The fine arts program in Provincetown gives you eight months to write on Cape Cod and a place to live and a stipend. Wisconsin is similar, but it's a little more money and you get to teach."
An agent saw an article she wrote for Yankee Magazine about the historic house she grew up in and told her, 'You should write a nonfiction book about this.' And so I wound up doing that and selling the book in advance. And then at the same time I got a National Endowment for the Arts prize for poetry." Her first book of poems came out in 2001 and her history/memoir Red House in 2004.
By then she was teaching in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. She was publishing and winning awards, and she got tenure. With her life and career more stable, she also was able to "go deeper into the meditation practice, so then I started coming back to Ann Arbor more. I just started spending the summer here or winter vacation here." And eventually she realized, "I'd really love to move back to Michigan."
She tried for a long time to get an academic job, but nothing opened up at U-M. She "was sort of a finalist" for a position at Wayne State, but that didn't pan out, either. "Then I just decided, 'Okay. I'm just going to give up. This just isn't gonna work.'"
On her visits to White Lotus she'd been helping out at their creamery. Farm co-owner and creamery founder Kat Tsomo told her she was good at it ("because I made cheese as a kid," Messer says). Tsomo said, "I wish we could hire you."
"I was like 'Yeah, that would be great,'" Messer replied. "I would work here.' And [Tsomo] said, 'Really?' And I said, 'Why not?' I just want to move back to Michigan."
A lot of her friends "thought I was really crazy," Messer says, but in 2014 she quit her tenured position, sold her house and got rid of her stuff, packed up her dogs, and moved to Ann Arbor to be a farmhand.
"I had two books of poetry come out the year after that-one was a translation and one was my second book of poetry-so it's not like I wasn't writing," she says. "It was just I wasn't teaching. I really was spending a lot of time learning how to make cheese and milking goats ... I did that for a few years and wasn't doing any kind of academic work at all."
But she did keep running "One Pause," a poetry program she'd cofounded at White Lotus. Ann Arbor poet Ken Mikolowski was a big fan. "He and I would go out to lunch occasionally and chat about poetry. One time we were chatting, and he said, 'Well, you know, I'm going to retire from the RC'"-the U-M Residential College. "And I said, 'Oh, that's great.' He said, 'And I just put your name in because I want them to hire you.'"
"'Ken, I work at White Lotus Farms,'I told him. 'I don't need a job. And also, that's not how things work, Ken. Like, really. I'm not going to get a job.'
"Then the RC contacted me and they said, 'Ken recommended you. Can you come in and talk to us?' Even at that point I thought, 'Why do they want to talk to me?' I guess it does work this way." She was hired part-time to take over Mikolowski's poetry tutorials.
"So I just stopped taking a salary from the creamery and started teaching-I was making no money from the farm, and I was making no money teaching, but it was about the same amount of no money." Then the part-time RC job became full-time, so now she just volunteers part-time at the farm.
"Ann Arbor has been really great to me," Messer says. "My job at the farm for the past couple years has been helping to birth the baby goats and feed the baby goats and oh, what a rough job! My Facebook and Instagram feed is just all pictures of baby goats and my dogs.
"I think that there are more students than ever that are interested in poetry, and I have to say it might be because of Instagram. I just know that more and more students are interested in poetry."
Canadian poet Rupi Kaur has more than four million followers on Instagram. Her website may not be as elegant as Taylor's, but it's much better monetized. "The academic poets are like 'Yeeech,'" Messer says. "But she's like so popular! And she's taught so many students poetry!
"I had a student who was having a really hard time emotionally, and somebody gave her a Rupi Kaur book, and it really pulled her out of her depression. And it's like, 'Okay, that works.'"
That fits with something John Knott told me when I asked why we need poetry. 'Because [poets] say things better than anyone else does and can open up new perspectives for us,' he replied. 'And at a time of crisis, like this, they can often add insights, and sometimes startling ones, that we learn from.'"
from Calls & Letters, March 2021
Smilka Zdravkovska found our February feature "Lives of the Poets" especially timely "after the amazing Amanda Gorman performance at the inauguration," but wondered why we'd omitted Joseph Brodsky. Peggy Anne Russo noted that "in 1972, U-M President Robben Fleming invited Brodsky to serve as our Poet in Residence after the Soviet Union expelled him for writing anti-Soviet poetry. After teaching here for a year, Brodsky taught at Queens College in New York during 1973-4 but returned to Ann Arbor and taught here from 1974-1980." In his poetry class in in the Slavic Languages Department, Russo added, "I learned to understand something that he later articulated when he became U. S. Poet Laureate in 1991: "By failing to read or listen to poets, society dooms itself to inferior modes of articulation, those of the politician, the salesman or the charlatan."
David McClendon's online comment was brief but pointed: "No mention of Anne Carson? Seriously?" The Canadian poet and classicist served as a U-M professor of classics, comparative literature, and English from 2003-2009.
[Originally published in February, 2021.]
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