April 5, 2002

McClane '73

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Prof. Kenneth McClane ’73, English, a nationally recognized essayist and poet, is also the W.E.B. DuBois Professor of Literature at Cornell. He currently teaches two courses in the College of Arts and Sciences: Creative Writing and an African American Literature class.

“My creative writing class is a congress of writers all impassionate that we respect a person’s right to be taken seriously,” said McClane. “Here [in the classroom], we are not acknowledged legislators; we are the legislators.”

McClane specializes in an area of African American Literature said Prof. James E. Turner, Africana Studies and Research center.

“He is a great scholar of African American Literature … specializing in James Baldwin,” Turner added.

McClane is now the author of eight books of poems, including Take Five: Poems 1972-1988 and a collection of personal essays. His work has appeared in The Best American Essays and The Jazz Poetry Anthology, among other publications.

McClane grew up on 147th street in Harlem, N.Y. His father was a doctor and his mother was both an artist and pharmacist. At a young age, McClane lived in Congressman Adam Clayton Powells house and, later, attended The Collegiate School, the first private school founded in the United States.

“My parents said to me, never let anybody call you stupid or say anything racially derogatory while you are at school. If they do, just hit them,” McClane recalled during the interview. On the first day of classes, McClane was called “nigger” by one of his classmates and in retaliation McClane punched him.

When his mother met with a school official that day McClane describes the interaction as a “meeting of two histories . . . one of the most profound moments in my life.”

After high school graduation, McClane decided to attend Cornell University.

“I came to Cornell because of the Willard Straight Hall Takeover,” McClane said.

The Willard Straight takeover was the seizing of Willard Straight by 100 black students to protest the faculty-student judicial board’s decision to punish black students for a disruptive protest the previous December.

“I knew then that Cornell was an institution that would take race seriously and I wanted to be involved,” McClane added.

“At first I wanted to be in the government, become a Congressman,” McClane said while describing his initial undergraduate goals. “Then, I took an introductory government course, and I realized that I couldn’t do it.”

McClane then began writing poetry.

“I called them poems, but they were bitter,” said McClane while describing his first works. “But then I attended a poetry reading and I read my first poem. After I read it, I sensed from the looks on the faces of the observers that they were thinking this guy doesn’t know what he is doing. So I asked myself, what am I doing wrong,” said McClane.

In response, McClane altered his poetry to appeal to the reader by adding what he says is necessary in all poems–a seductive introduction.

McClane attended his first English class at Cornell as a student of famous poet Archie Randolph (A.R.) Ammons.

“He was as interested in you as you were in him,” said McClane. “Later, I had a tough professor named Baxtor .. . . he must have said about two good things in his life. I walked into his office one day to discuss a problem with one of my poems and I asked him if I should quit … Baxtor said, ‘No, no, you are really quite extraordinary.'”

That moment convinced McClane to continue writing. By McClane’s senior year, he had already published an entire book of poetry.

Currently, McClane has been at Cornell for nearly 30 years.

“I love Cornell,” said McClane. “Cornell was the first place that ever really took me seriously . . . and you know what I really love about this place? I love this school because it does not yet say what it is. It is a boundless source of commencement.”

McClane also expressed similar love for teaching.

“I want to make sure that every student gets to have that same moment I had with Baxtor,” McClane said. “I teach my writers not to be self-indulgent, when writing poetry … I love to see a writer write a good poem … there is so much joy … to know you are loved is an amazing thing.”

Others commented on McClane’s teaching with similar enthusiasm.

“He is a master teacher … not only does he have the ability to communicate with students; he has a deep personal involvement … students talk about how he cares,” said Turner.

McClane shows his care for the Cornell community by leading a poetry reading Friday, April 5th at 3 p.m. on the second floor of the Mann Library addition.

Archived article by David Andrade