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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,"
"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
"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
Program , Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-4712. Wednesday, February
17, 4:30 p.m.
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