President Richard Brodhead joined English faculty and students to read poetry over cake and coffee Monday afternoon.
Hosted by the English department, the event was designed to share the pleasure of language and poetry with a diverse group of people. Faculty and students alike shared their favorite pieces of poetry—whose authors ranged from Seamus Heaney to Tupac Shakur—and followed with discussion.
The event came as the result of Brodhead's reminiscing of a ritual during his Ph.D at Yale University, said senior English major Bailey Sincox, who organized the event.
"[President Brodhead] wanted this to echo relaxing afternoons of poetry he attended at his time in Yale," Sincox said. "He missed the nurturing environment that sharing poetry fosters."
Brodhead earned both his undergraduate and doctoral degrees in English and taught the subject for more than twenty years. He has written more than a dozen books on 19th century literature.
The event was designed to create a community around poetry—a medium that is widely prevalent on campus but without an organized space to share, said Priscilla Wald, professor of English and women's studies.
"The whole idea was to create an environment that allowed people to articulate their incoherent thoughts and emotions through poetry," Wald said.
Brodhead chose to share pieces that pertained to school—"September, The First Day Of School," by Howard Nemerov, about the first day of a student's primary education, and part of John Milton's "Paradise Lost," a Biblical piece with themes of graduation. He reminded students that the two events were closer than they may think.
"Undergraduates are right in the middle of the time frame from when they first stepped onto campus and when they will be dropping their own children off to school," Brodhead said. "The two are very closely connected, especially in the foundational knowledge that is gained."
Other faculty members shared poetry echoing similar themes, such as education and student inquiry. English professor Deborah Pope shared a lighthearted piece about common questions in the classroom.
"This poem is dedicated to those students who feel the need to ask, 'Did I miss anything?' after an absence," she explained.
In addition to faculty, students both within the English department and from other backgrounds participated in the event. Themes shared ranged from uncertainty after graduation to memories from childhood.
Yemi Adewuyi, a junior and public policy major, shared two poems from what he called "unconventional" sources—"The Rose that Grew from Concrete" and "Can You See the Pride in the Panther?"—by rapper Tupac Shakur.
"By choosing these poems, I'm trying to learn how to expand my definition of poetry," Adewuyi said. "People who grew up in Harlem have a much different definition of poetry than, say, a Ph.D student from Yale."
The event was also a chance to celebrate faculty members of the English department who were leaving along with the seniors—including Maureen Quilligan, the R. Florence Brinkley professor of English, who will retire this year after 15 years at Duke to cap off her four decades as a professor.
"I feel as though I'm graduating as well, and it's bittersweet and a bit terrifying as well," Quilligan said.
Michael Moses, associate professor of English, said he felt the event was successful in the way it brought students and faculty together. He noted that the event reminded him of a similar poetry reading done after the death of Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize for Literature winner who passed away two years ago.
"Although [Heaney's commemoration] was more somber, it fostered the same deep sense of community seen here," Moses said. "This shows that poetry is not about a moment, it's about life."
Wald said that she hoped similar events hosted by the English department will continue into the future, drawing a larger, more diverse and similarly enthusiastic audience.
"We want this to become an annual or biannual affair," she said. "Poetry has benefits that should be spread widely into the community."
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