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Seeing yourself in a prize-winning poet

Jason BreMiller

Exonians discuss poetry around the table with Pulitzer winner Gregory Pardlo.

March 22, 2018
Gregory Pardlo in Exeter English class

It’s the Friday before spring break and I sit with my C-block lowers waiting for Mr. Perdomo to swing by with this winter’s Lamont Poet, Pulitzer Prize winner Gregory Pardlo, for a visit to our class to talk poems. The students are loose, excited, and when one asks why Mr. Pardlo is coming to visit us, I smile and say I think it’s because they’re just that good.

And it’s true. They are a good group, and we’ve spent the last few days digging into poems from Pardlo’s collection, "Digest." His work, it turns out, is suited to helping our students think about close reading, about word choice and connotation. For their first reading assignment from the collection, I ask them to take on a single poem — what many of them dismiss as an easy task — until they hear they have to arrive with a working familiarity of every.single.word.in.the.poem. “Ain’t I a woman?” takes them to Sojourner Truth, “fishes and loaves” to the gospels. “Harrow tooth” and “cipher” are words they now know.

When Mr. Pardlo arrives, he slides into a chair and, after brief introductions from the students, they’re off. The banter is easy and seamless. No awkward silences. I’ve asked them to think ahead about questions they might ask, but the whole thing feels more like a conversation than a Q&A. “How does structure work in your poems?” “How about your process, can you speak to that?” The questions are genuine and alert.

It’s powerful for the students, I think, to see their own observations from class echoed in the author’s assessment of his own work. For example, Pardlo comments on his use of enjambment to invite simultaneous readings, which of course is something the students uncovered for themselves in the previous day’s conversation. A passage from the opening poem of the collection reads, “... I was born passing/ off the problem of the twentieth century: I was born.” When Pardlo discusses the simultaneous readings of “passing” and “passing off,” the students feel proud of having found this on their own. 

The conversation really gets interesting when they ask Mr. Pardlo about his poem “Problema 4,” the subject of their current writing assignment in which they have to write a narrative version of the poem, choosing from which character’s perspective they’d like to tell the story, which poetic details will become salient in their work. They want to know more about this actual, lived moment in Pardlo’s life, and they’re dismayed to discover that the moment, as written, didn’t actually happen! Pardlo emphasizes the importance of discovery in the writing process. “What does the poem want to BE?” he asks, “and how can you listen to that answer?”

Much of what Pardlo says complements our department’s conversations about narrative writing, too, which makes me smile knowing they’ll be more apt to heed his advice than listen to my droning about “finding the story’s soul.” And when Pardlo tells them that it often takes him years to write a single poem, they hear echoes of our messaging around process.

Mostly, though, it’s a joy to spend this time with the poet, and I daresay the kids feel so, too. This time helps them better imagine a life as a writer. They see themselves in the poet. It is not a stretch to imagine a student’s life trajectory hinging on such an encounter. As we say our goodbyes, I feel lucky. Lucky for them for this proximity, and lucky for myself that I teach in a school that affords us all such beautiful classroom moments. 

Jason BreMiller is an English instructor and sustainability education coordinator.

Lamont Poets: view from the archives

By Peter Nelson

Gregory Pardlo is Exeter's 75th Lamont Poet. His visit coincides with the 35th anniversary of the Lamont Poetry Series, which has brought an impressive string of renowned poets to campus dating back to the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges in May 1983.

Mr. Pardlo's visit was consistent with an established Lamont tradition: visiting English classes to discuss poetry, giving a public reading in Assembly Hall, sitting for a photographic portrait, and presenting the Academy with a handwritten poem of his choosing. The portrait and the poem are then framed and put on display, either in the Class of 1945 Library or in one of the English classrooms. Truly, the gallery of handsomely framed poets and poems is a physical affirmation that poetry is alive and well at Exeter.

Many of the poems that our Lamont Poets write out during their stay are completely new for the occasion, or at least reworkings of already existing unpublished drafts.

Toward the end of his reading on the evening of February 21, Pardlo mentioned the poem that he had written out a few hours earlier in the library. Entitled "Camden," it, too, was a new creation, he said. Its references to Walt Whitman (who, like Pardlo, shares roots in New Jersey's Delaware Valley) were inspired, he explained, by the circumstances of his sitting in a quiet corner of the library's main floor where a framed Whitman manuscript and portrait looked over his shoulder. (Curiously, Borges, the first Lamont Poet, had also made Whitman prominent in his remarks 35 years earlier.)

Given this curious dialogue between a "framed" poet from an earlier era and a modern poet whose new work will soon be framed, it is impossible not to wonder whether some Exonian, years from now, will take poetic inspiration from Pardlo's framed work hanging somewhere on campus.


Peter Nelson is the Academy archivist.

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