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From Princetonians to Poets

This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 10, 1999. All rights reserved.

To many, a job’s a job. But ask poet Laurie Sheck

about her job teaching in Princeton University’s Creative Writing

Program and you’ll hear the word "love" three times in the

first three lines alone.

"I love teaching undergraduates," says Sheck, "and one

of the things I love about it is that `poetry as career’ doesn’t come

to the foreground. In graduate training there’s a professional emphasis,

but at the undergraduate level it’s a chance for immersion in the

art form. You get a chance to fall in love with it."

Sheck is one of the panoply of "real" writers — also known

as luminaries in American literature and letters — who teach in

the university’s creative writing program. "A Gala Reading to

celebrate 60 years of creative writing at Princeton, 1939 to 1999,"

takes place in Richardson Auditorium of Alexander Hall on Wednesday,

February 17, at 4:30 p.m. Joining Sheck at the reading are colleagues

Yusef Komunyakaa, Toni Morrison, Paul Muldoon, Joyce Carol Oates,

James Richardson, A.J. Verdelle, Edmund White, and C.K. Williams;

emeritus faculty members Russell Banks, Edmund Keeley, and Theodore

Weiss; and visiting faculty Agha Shahid Ali and Jeffrey Eugenides.

The Creative Arts Program, as it was originally known, was organized

in 1939 to offer enrichment opportunities to undergraduates in all

the arts. Following World War II, poet and critic R.P. Blackmur became

the program’s guiding light. Today more than 150 undergraduates each

semester are enrolled in Creative Writing workshops and tutorials

that are graded on a pass/fail basis. Although there is no creative

writing major, about 10 to 15 students each year write a creative

senior thesis in lieu of the conventional critical one, a thesis that

takes the form of a book of poems, a novel, or a collection of creative

translations. Although this is not a pre-professional program it counts

W.S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, Jonathan Ames, Jane Hirschfield, and

David Treuer among its alumni.

Sheck joined the program three years ago after 15 years’ teaching

at Rutgers University. Her third and most recent book of poetry, "The

Willow Grove," was nominated for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize. As a

younger author and an MFA graduate of the University of Iowa’s Writers’

Workshop, she represents a minority of faculty members who themselves

trained as creative writers within an academic setting.

The program’s home, at 185 Nassau Street, is another topic that pleases

her. "You walk into 185 Nassau and it smells of paint," says

Sheck. "The dance and drama students are there. There’s this whole

sense of the arts and their potential interaction with each other."

Sheck grew up in New York and started her education at Carleton College

in Minnesota in the early ’70s, but left to live in England. She returned

in the late ’70s and earned her BA at Antioch, a work-study school,

before moving on to Iowa’s renowned graduate program.

"If you’re going to write, you’ve got to read," says Sheck.

"You’re working within a tradition. Yes, it’s self expression,

and yes, it’s an art form. Poetry has technique and it has a history.

There are ways poems talk to each other across centuries. The great

poets are our guides."

Sheck has great enthusiasm for the program’s pluralism,

with classes open to students, especially freshmen, from throughout

the campus. "I had a student last semester majoring in molecular

biology, studying larvae," she recalls. "She started writing

poems using the imagery from her scientific work. It was fascinating,

these things that seemed so strange to us. She created a whole world

on the page. She’s going to go on and become a good scientist, yet

there’s a part of herself that will always be interested in words."

The ability to work successfully as both a creative writer and a teacher

is the hallmark of this faculty. "Poetry and teaching are very,

very different," says Sheck. "As a writer, you have things

that you’re pursuing that are going to feed into your poems. That

doesn’t mean that any or all of that belongs in your classroom. I

have to decide which poems are good for my students. As a teacher,

you want to give them a way in to poetry. You’re on a journey together,

but it doesn’t mean it’s the same journey you’re on as a writer."

At the opposite end of the age and experience spectrum is novelist

and translator Edmund Keeley, professor emeritus, whose association

with Princeton goes back 55 years. He began as an undergraduate in

1944, studied with R.P. Blackmur, and returned in the 1950s as Blackmur’s

assistant. Keeley became director of the Creative Arts Program in

1964, and steered it through its division into creative writing, visual

arts, and theater and dance. A novelist and a translator, he retired

10 years ago.

"Our program at that time was unique at the undergraduate level.

Our mission was not merely to develop talent, it was to train students

as readers of literature and give them access to the creative process.

You learn a tremendous amount about reading poetry by writing it.

It was really a way of developing the critical faculties as well as

the creative faculties. Out of that you’re going to get some people

who are going on to become writers, but an undergraduate program isn’t

dominated by the professional attitude the way graduate programs are."

Keeley says R.P Blackmur, a member of the Princeton community from

1940 until his death at age 61 in 1965, was crucial in opening Princeton

to creative artists, especially writers. In an essay for Princeton’s

250th anniversary, Keeley wrote: "Whatever Blackmur may have left

behind him in Maine, what he brought to Princeton enriched a generation

of students in ways no other literary figure on the scene could have,

and for many of those who came to know him personally, he made the

life of letters seem divinely charged."

Another long-time faculty member is James Richardson, a poet and Princeton

graduate, who studied in the creative program and returned to direct

it throughout the 1980s. He oversaw the growth of the program that

had just two permanent faculty members when he arrived, augmented

at that time by visiting faculty that included Joyce Carol Oates.

"When I applied to Princeton 30 years ago, I read in the admissions

brochure that 30 percent of the students thought they were going to

be writers," he says. "If anything we have more marvelous

students now. Good young writers know that Princeton is a place to

come to for writing, and the admissions office is sympathetic in considering

writing as a talent to be recognized.

"When one teaches, one’s not necessarily thinking how many in

this class are going to turn out to be a professional poets. We’re

not primarily, interested in replicating ourselves as working poets

and novelists. Our interest is in a much broader range of students,"

he says.

"To be 20 and a poet is to be 20. To be 40 and a poet is to be

a poet," is a phrase Richardson came across 30 years ago, a phrase

that has stayed with him. He says the faculty of writers have always

been "people who were interested in students and in what they

were thinking. Sometimes a limitation of experience is an advantage,"

he notes. "Experience can lock us into a way of seeing. Innocence

is important too."

At the helm of the Creative Writing program today is poet Paul Muldoon,

director since 1993. Muldoon, also, takes pride in the program’s pluralism.

"It would be a very dreary world if only English majors wrote

poetry," he says emphatically.

Does the program’s faculty share any common characteristic,

we ask. "They’re extremely good," says Muldoon. "They’re

good writers and good teachers. And the combination of those two things

is what we’re after. We have quite an extraordinary faculty in terms

of their achievements nationally and internationally."

"There is a terrific sense of community among the faculty here.

People are very much motivated to what they are doing here. They’re

allowed to do their jobs without too much red tape. They’re certainly

left in peace by me. Our reading series also is a social occasion

for the faculty and the wider community."

Although there is competition for admission to the 10-student workshops,

Muldoon says the program tries to admit as many as possible. "One

of the great delights of the place is that we have engineers, scientists,

historians. We have students from all over the place in our workshops.

The reason why some of us have resisted the idea of a creative writing

major is that would tend to focus on English majors."

Muldoon, who published his first book of poems while still an undergraduate,

was born in Northern Ireland in 1951. He is the author of nine collections

of poetry, the most recent of which is "Hay" (1998), as well

as two opera libretti. A 1973 graduate of Queens University, Belfast,

Muldoon’s college education did not include access to a creative writing

program as such.

"When I was setting out, the creative writing program was nowhere

much institutionalized in Ireland or Britain," he says. "When

I was a student my tutor was Seamus Heaney and I did belong to a student

workshop. I had done a lot of reading in poetry as a teenager. I was

steeped in it, and at some level I felt `I could do that.’ Whether

or not I was right or wrong is another matter."

Muldoon reiterates the fact that his creative writing curriculum is

built around extensive reading of other writers, as well as weekly

poetry assignments.

"You can’t write without reading," he says. "Always lurking

is the question, can you teach someone to write. I think we can. It

has to do with connecting with what we don’t know. One often hears

that writers should write about what they know, but for many writers

it makes as much sense that we should write about what we don’t know.

"Keats used the expression `negative capability.’ He wrote about

how the poet needs to resist striving for conventional reason and

give themselves over to uncertainty, mystery, doubts. This is the

most difficult thing to teach.

"One thing I try to encourage in students is that, if anything,

they’re as likely to deliver the goods as I am," says Muldoon.

"They should not think of themselves to be waiting for the real

thing to come along. This is quite likely to be the real thing."

— Nicole Plett

A Gala Reading, Princeton University Creative Writing

Program , Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-4712. Wednesday, February

17, 4:30 p.m.

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