The Cornell English Department has become a staple in the American literary tradition. Although it isn’t readily apparent walking around the streets of Ithaca, American literature has benefited greatly from the work of notable Cornellians, some within the now 105 year-old Creative Writing program. The program offered to students its Centennial Plus Five reading series this semester in order to celebrate their impressive literary legacy and offer students access to the wide array of literary studies Cornell has to offer.
The reading series culminated last Thursday with readings by two prolific Cornell faculty members: Kenneth McClane B.A. ’73, M.A. ’74, M.F.A. ’76 and Robert Morgan. The event was the memorial reading for long-time Cornellian and writer Richard Cleveland ’74.
McClane, a poet turned essayist, was introduced by his colleague James McConkey as a man whose “imaginative reconstructing of the past,” allows him “to come out ahead.” This is precisely the way in which McClane himself claims to use writing, saying “a writer understands the world by writing about it.” McClane read an essay called “Unity Day” about an event in New London, Connecticut at which he had been asked to read poetry shortly after his brother’s death. The essay dealt with questions of race and family, featuring scenes that highlighted his upbringing and his relationship to his brother, Paul. After Paul died in 1982 due to issues with alcoholism, Kenneth abandoned poetry and turned exclusively to essay writing, remarking in an interview with the Writers at Cornell blog that to him “poetry … and [his] brother were synonymous.”
McClane’s essay was rife with comedy and truth, with didactic descriptions of his friends and family and a climactic fight from his childhood in Harlem, serving as a bridge between relics of his past and present.
Robert Morgan has written fiction, non-fiction and poetry in a career that has allowed him to teach both McClane and Cleveland. Morgan reminisced about his career that has included decades of work at Cornell. He read multiple poems, including a poem called “Honey” that was made into a Canadian film. Many of Morgan’s poems highlight his love for music, capturing the unique sounds of some of his favorite instruments through a barrage of words.
Despite the celebratory aspect to the event, the audience was sparse, populated by a variety of faculty members but very few undergraduates. Although poetry readings are rarely large-scale events on any college campus, the chasm between the Cornell English Department and students was palpable. Literary studies and even literary interest are uncommon on campus and the reading series is scarcely frequented by undergraduates.
The reading series ended last Thursday for the semester, but it will return again in the spring. There are a variety of events on campus that offer insight that can literally only be had in the university setting. Cornell is truly a unique place for the myriad of intelligence that is available, whether or not students take advantage of it.