She looked like a poet, sitting there in the first seat of the first row of Hollis E. Auditorium, quietly chatting to her former student, now a professor here at Cornell, and her husband as people found their seats. In her floor-length black skirt, flowing patterned blouse and, of course, pearls, Claudia Emerson was the picture of a modern Southern poet. With a very slight accent that grows in strength when she reads her work, her demeanor adds a certain charm to her poetry that would be lost on the text alone. Brought to Cornell by the Barbara & David Zalaznick Reading Series, the former poet laureate of Virginia and Pulitzer Prize winner is the first reader for the fall semester and an excellent beginning to what promises to be a stimulating season for the series. Introduced by her former student, Prof. Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, English, to a crowd of mainly undergraduate and graduate students and faculty, Emerson maintained a presence that commanded attention behind the podium.
She began with a highly personal poem from her most recent book, Secure the Shadow, which came out in January of this year. It was inspired in part by a burning house she saw as she was returning from a writer’s conference, but also by the death of her brother from cancer. She spoke of his passing and how, “whether [she] wanted to write about it or not, everything [she] saw became a metaphor for metastacy (sic).” The imagery in the poem was powerful, with the idea of flame destroying everything but the house’s frame so intricately tied with the journey of her brother and his disease, but even more touching than the message itself was how Emerson said it. As she briefly discussed during her reading, there is such a large difference between poems that can be read to an audience and those that we must read ourselves but, somehow, she was able to negotiate the intimacy and privacy of quietly reading the poem alone and the performance of it. Her voice, hushed and steady, with an accent subtly trickling over every word, brought the poem to life and gave it a new presence in the world. It was as if in the walls of the auditorium she breathed new life into her words.
The rest of the reading continued much in the same way, with her introducing each poem she read by sharing her inspiration with the audience. Some poems were more personal than others, and the light hearted poems gave the audience a different perspective on her as a poet. Her style hails from the Walt Whitman genre of American poetry, with long sentences, dense language and a distinctive narrative in each work read. She focuses more on the sound of words, saying that she “puts sound and sentences before form,” which is why her poetry lends itself to the performance.
In the performance lies her strength. When she read, the room turned into a vacuum, with every rustle of paper and squeak of chair so horribly apparent that one dared not to so much breathe too loudly. There was a sense that not only was she saying something, but that something was important. She reminded the audience that poetry is not just something to be read alone, but to be shared. Poetry is an experience, much like going to a museum or seeing a musician perform. She explained the writing process to the audience, detailing the painstaking procedure of picking not just the right word in meaning, but also the right word in terms of sound, syllable and fit. It sounded less like writing and more like fitting together pieces of a blank puzzle. She reminded us that there is so much more to poetry than the finished product.
It could be argued that things are lost when a poem is read aloud, like form or personal interpretation. That is true for some poets, like Emily Dickinson or E.E. Cummings. However, for poets like Emerson, whose narrative and sound are the driving force behind the poetry, things are only gained. Emerson proved to be talented not only as a writer, but as a performer, setting the bar high for the rest of the writers in the Reading Series.
Original Author: Mary Jarvis