Poetic promise

The Lamont Younger Poets Prize program expands the Exeter tradition of excellence in writing.

Nicole Pellaton
June 26, 2018
Academy Building

The poet, seated across from three long-haired girls at a small wooden table, observes that one has paused in her writing. “Don’t stop and think or cross anything out!” the poet says. “Write the same word over and over and over if you get stuck.” The girl who stopped looks at the poet, shrugs with a hesitant smile and picks up her pencil to continue.

On this Wednesday afternoon in early May, these girls have come to the Elting Room to learn from Jill McDonough, visiting Lamont Poet and author of many books, including Habeas Corpus and Reaper. McDonough asks the girls if they know how to write in iambic pentameter. “No,” they say dubiously. You will be surprised, McDonough explains, you already speak it; you will see. She instructs them to write about their surroundings for five minutes without stopping. When the girls read their work out loud, it is, in fact, largely in iambic pentameter. They lean in to learn more from the poet.

Evening reading in the Academy Library

Later that same day, out of earshot, we watch as the four students who have received the Lamont Younger Poets Prize talk to McDonough. Postures say it all. She is giving them support: You will be great! Loose limbs give way to intensity and poise.

Anne Brandes ’21 strides to the podium in a gray dress. Tall and straight, hair in a ponytail, she is framed by the massive wooden card catalog behind her and, at her sides, two glass cases that each hold a three-masted ship model. The early-evening light in Rockefeller Hall gives everything a honeyed glow. “Mother Nature” is dedicated to her mom, Brandes explains as she begins to read, eyes reaching out every few lines to the audience of friends and curious strangers.

Mai Hoang ’20, clad in a green blouse and a voluminous scarf, embraces us with smiles as she reads “Ghazal: A Confession.” Humor flows with each end-of-couplet repetition of the word “drama” — Don’t overdramatize / psychoanalyze. — until the last stanza, when she turns it on its head:
Declaring everlasting love.
O my! Trauma drama drum-a drum-a drum-a. 

Ginny Little ’20, quietly composed in bright coral red, explains that her villanelle, “Body Language,” was inspired by this year’s MLK Day:
A kindly word just can’t get through;
Entrenched opinions form a wall.
And still, I struggle to reach you.

And Blane Zhu ’20, rounding out the alphabet in glasses and shorts, explains matter-of-factly that this is the first poem he has ever written. We shift in our seats. His English teacher challenged him to write in the style of Gregory Pardlo, the Lamont Poet who visited campus a few months earlier, this new poet explains. The resulting “Man, Foreign,” a 12-stanza poem, ends forcefully:
City Boi, I can tell ya apart at first glance.

Next, McDonough steps to the podium and commends the students on their craft: enjambment in the ghazal, imagery in the villanelle. “You’re way ahead of me,” she says to the four. She is tall, a strong presence, oval face regarding us. As she reads, her eyes seek connection with us frequently, unflinchingly, but her hands, arms, legs remain calm. Between poems, when she tells stories about teaching prisoners and writing about military technology, it is the opposite: arms akimbo, hands gesturing, vocabulary colorful.

Reading finished, we applaud, and stand as the four young award winners glide magnetlike back to McDonough. They bask in her praise, once again out of earshot: You did good work, you gave brave readings! Their bodies transform from self-consciousness to the natural springiness of teenagers. They are ready for the desserts awaiting them at a side table. 

The Lamont Younger Poets Prize is awarded in memory of English Instructor Rex McGuinn. It commemorates his dedication to student poetry at Exeter, particularly his encouragement of preps and lowers.