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Emergency Poetry

U.Va. professors share their favorite poems in Humanities Week event

The popularity of Humanities Week event “Emergency Poetry” far exceeded expectations. The Bryan Hall faculty lounge was jam-packed Monday night, full of students across a variety of majors waiting to hear their favorite professors read their “emergency poems” after rain moved the event inside.

“I was bummed that the event had to be moved inside but it was kind of amazing to see how many people were willing to cram into that tiny room and choose to listen to poems being read,” third-year College student Ashley Shamblin said. “It gives you hope that the humanities aren’t dying.”

Assoc. English Prof. Clare Kinney’s introduced the “emergency poem,” an idea she said she initially heard from Assoc. English Prof. Elizabeth Fowler.

“[It is] the poem you can’t do without: a beloved object, a restorative, a mantra, a momentary stay against confusion, a special touchstone for its possessor,” she said.

Fowler was the first to read her poem. She kept up the light-hearted mood — a necessity for keeping the dozens of students in attendance happy while crammed into every nook and cranny of the tiny lounge — as she read “The Crown of Sonnets” by Mary Wroth.

Because English Prof. Stephen Arata was sick, Kinney read his selected poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by W.B. Yeats.

Kate Burke, associate voice professor drama department, read a fitting poem about the human voice, explaining that the poem is “evidence the poet has experienced the ecstasy of the body feeling vocal sound waves in the bones.” She added that the voice, with its raw power, is the precursor to words.

Creative Writing Prof. Debra Nystrom read Seamus Heaney’s descriptive and simplistic “Postscript,” while English Prof. Karen Chase Levenson selected Sylvia Plath’s “Sheep in Fog.”

Levenson said she chose the poem because she interprets the word “emergency” to mean ecstasy, a feeling she believes the poem emits.

Classics Prof. John Miller concluded the series by reciting CP Cavafy’s “The God Abandons Antony.” He thanked the other professors for leaving 30 minutes left for his “lecture,” pursuing a more historical analysis than the other readers had given.

Miller explained his poem is about emergency itself and how to deal with life after a crushing failure — a feat possible in the end through courage. He offered a fitting end to the presentations, reflecting the essence of the emergency poem: being something to turn to in time of need.

“I think the whole idea of having an emergency poem, one that you have memorized and can pull out at any time whenever you need it, is really brilliant,” Shamblin said.


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