Henry David Thoreau

“My life has been the poem I would have writ, / But I could not both live and utter it,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. 

It appears that most college students have chosen to live their ‘poetic’ lives, because they certainly aren’t writing poetry.

I must admit: I love poetry.  Appreciation for poetry seems so rare among college kids that admitting my affinity for it feels almost like a confession.  I recently shocked a friend when I mentioned that I was reading some Charles Bukowski. “How could anyone actually enjoy poetry?” he asked. That’s when I realized that I can’t explain why I like poetry so much.  I couldn’t even properly define poetry.  Poetry is what poets do, and what poets do is poetry.  Without any logical defense, I resorted to quoting John Donne: “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love.”

The exchange got me thinking.  Is poetry dead?  Has it ended, not with a bang, but a whimper?  Was Adrian Mitchell correct when he said, “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people”?

Corey Schneider, a freshman and journalism student, isn’t a fan of poetry.  What’s expressed in poetry, he says, could just as effectively be expressed in “normal” writing form.  Caroline Crain, a freshman from Dallas, agreed. “I don’t like poetry,” she said. “It’s either random and pointless or too hard to understand.  While it may be important and interesting to some, it’s just not very relevant to most students.”

Let’s be honest. How many living poets could the average college student name?  When was the last time a poet was on The New York Times best-seller list?

But to many, poetry is still something to be cherished.  Chris Axmann, a member of the Plan II Poetry Society, says, “Poetry is a dying art, but no more so than any other type of literature. 

There’s not much emphasis on introspection and self-analysis anymore.  Especially in college, standardized grades and evaluations limit creativity.  Not many kids are getting into poetry anymore, and I think that’s because it doesn’t involve the instant gratification that new media provides.”

Axmann says that much of the expression of poetry is unique to poetry as an art form.  In the same way that a painting can express things that a photograph can’t, poetry expresses feelings that prose can’t always convey.

On the other hand, Paul Ruffin, 2009 Texas State Poet Laureate, has little doubt that poetry is alive and well. “It’s not a dying art form,” he said. “It was here at the beginning of man’s awareness of the world he lived in, when he celebrated life around a campfire in the middle of the desolation of an awakening world, and it will be here at the end, when man will celebrate life around a campfire in the middle of the desolation of a dying world.”

He summed up my views of poetry beautifully: “If life is relevant, then poetry is relevant. It is awfully hard to make much sense of life these days as we slip deeper and deeper into the technological morass of this century, but no matter what our existential trappings, we are still human beings doing the best we can in an increasingly complicated world. Poetry will help us deal with it.”

However, I do disagree with him on one point. Although not dead yet, poetry does seem to be dying.  It will be a sad funeral I will attend when it happens, but our short time left with poetry makes it that much more important to enjoy it now.  I’m not asking much: simply take five or 10 minutes once a day — or even once a week — and read a poem.

And to poetry itself, just listen to Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

McCann is a Plan II freshman from Dallas.


Printed on Friday, October 5, 2012 as: Poetic triage

Sheela Jane Menon, graduate student in English, reads a selection from “Bless Me Ultima,” by Rudolfo Anaya, in a read-in Wednesday on the West Mall. The event was hosted to protest the banning of books in an Arizona public school district as well as to fight for the continuation of ethnic studies at UT.

Photo Credit: Raveena Bhalara | Daily Texan Staff

Beneath an umbrella next to a sign declaring “Knowledge is Beautiful,” anthropology and Plan II senior Rashika Pedris read an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” Wednesday morning as part of a protest against the ban of books in a public school district in Arizona.

Along with 11 other universities, students and faculty at UT held a read-in all day on Wednesday at the West Mall to protest the banning of books and the termination of a Mexican American Studies class in a Tucson school district. The read-in was also geared at fighting for the continuation of ethnic studies curriculum at UT, something which assistant English professor Snehal Shingavi said funding for has been cut back in recent years. Despite occasional rain showers throughout the day, 38 student and faculty members read excerpts from the banned books to protest the Tucson Unified School District’s decisions. Shingavi said there have also been attacks on the legitimacy of teaching ethnic study classes at the university level, which was another reason to hold the read-in.

“Over the last several years the university has slowly shrunk the budget for ethnic studies on this campus,” Shingavi said. “We’re trying to reassert the idea that these stories are marginal and excluded and have always been at the edges of what the University considers to be meaningful. But that is no reason to exclude these stories, because they’re important in understanding what America actually is.”

Shingavi said he hoped the read-in raised awareness about what was happening both in Arizona and at UT.“Hopefully, doing this read-in injects some of those ideas, some of those texts and some of those ideas into people who otherwise would not consider thinking about them or reading them,” Shingavi said.

Pedris, who read the excerpt of Thoreau during a rainfall, said having ethnic study courses were important at all levels.

“I think there is this view that Americans have one solid history and that is just not the case,” Pedris said. “We keep talking about being the home of the free and the brave, and those free and brave come from a variety of backgrounds. I think it is important that we learn as many different kinds of history as there are.”

Shingavi said the reason for the book ban in Arizona and the attack on ethnic study curriculum was probably to hide the darker side of American history.

“There is a kind of fear that many have on the political right about ethnic studies of challenging this notion that America is the pinnacle of democracy and civil rights globally,” Shingavi said. “American history is normally the triumph narrative of white settlement in America, the rise of an industrial class, the growth of American power globally. The ethnic study narrative is a different narrative.”

Shingavi said ethnic studies classes provide a viewpoint on groups who had to fight for their legal rights.

“It provides a real texture for those of us who contend with the contemporary legacy of exclusion, discrimination and lack of civil rights,” Shingavi said.

Saloni Singh, Plan II honors and biology senior, read an excerpt from Luis Alberto Urrea’s “The Devil’s Highway,” a book about deaths on the US-Mexico border. She said ethnic studies in the United States could not be separated from immigration studies.

“Almost all the groups exist in the United States were at one point descendants from immigrants,” Singh said. “I think ethnic studies, especially in places like Arizona, are critical for the appreciation of migrants and migration, why people come here and what lengths people go to come here, despite adversary and danger.”

Printed on Thursday, March 1, 2012 as: Read-in supports ethnic studies, books

Austin Director Richard Linklater stopped by the art building to speak with visiting artist Mika Tajima about his 1991 film, “Slacker,” the philosophy of slacking and how they relate to Tajima’s exhibition at the UT Visual Arts Center.

Photo Credit: Tamir Kalifa | Daily Texan Staff

Director and filmmaker Richard Linklater and artist Mika Tajima contended that slackers aren’t apathetic or lazy, but are instead driven by a unique ideology that emphasizes enjoying life. They discussed their views on slackers at a program presented Tuesday by the Blanton Museum of Art and the UT Visual Arts Center.

Linklater, known for his 1991 film “Slacker,” and Tajima, creator of an exhibit in the Visual Arts Center entitled “The Architect’s Garden,” noted the ways art facilitates an appreciation of a slacker’s world view.

Tajima said she often integrates the concept of ‘flaneur,’ or experiencing the world as you stroll through it with no particular destination in mind, into her work. She said flaneur is a key element to one piece she has on display at the Visual Arts Center, where emphasis is put on the empty space in the work, rather than the physical parts of the piece.

“It’s like the classroom at the University where no one showed up to class,” Tajima said.

Society often overlooks great pieces of art and artists that require them to think about that space in between the art, or non-traditionalist thought, Linklater said.

“My prototypical American slacker would be Henry David Thoreau,” Linklater said. “People hated Thoreau.”

Thoreau, a renowned 19th century essayist and naturalist, is an example of people who have rejected the traditional way of life in centuries past, he said.

“There’s always going to be people who are going to be like ‘screw this, I want to live,’” Linklater said.

Linklater said he believes that people who avoid consumeristic obsession usually are more apt to place emphasis on life and people rather than their dollar value.

“The stock market crashes,” Linklater said. “We’re like ‘so what?’ There’s a sense of community. There’s not a lot of greed.”

Linklater and Tajima acknowledged the growing influence of consumerism in the evolving purpose of college, a topic recent Trinity University graduate and Visual Arts Center intern Elyse Rodriguez said directly applied to her life.

“We touched upon many issues that affected me personally as a recent college grad,” Rodriguez said. “College used to not be so expensive. Now, you are pressured into taking a job right away, even if it’s not what you love. I want to do my own thing. I don’t want to be in a cubicle with computers because it makes me money.”

People must decide how they define the word “work” before being able to truly appreciate a non-consumeristic ideology, Linklater said.

“You have to be careful how you define work,” Linklater said. “I don’t really consider what I do work. This is the life I chose. I love it.”

Linklater’s most recent piece of work, “Bernie,” starring Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey, isn’t set to be released until next year, but audiences will have a chance to screen it Saturday, Sept. 17 at the Paramount Theatre to raise funds for fire victims in Bastrop. Most filming was done in Bastrop, and Linklater has property in the area.

“It’s something people in Austin can do to help our neighbors,” Linklater said. “My neighbors all lost their houses. Unlike my neighbors, I am not homeless.”

Printed on Wednesday, September 14, 2011 as: Director, artist inspired by slacking.