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“A Mild And Gentle Cacophony:” Women Poets At Barnard

Words, words, words.

Words, words, words.

Don’t feel as though you’ve been getting your fill of female angst lately? Does your life feel lacking in art, poetry, and beautiful words? If you answered yes to either of those questions, Bwogger Betsy Ladyzhets’ recounting of her experience at the Women Poets at Barnard reading last night is for you.

I swept into the Sulzberger Parlor at precisely two minutes to 7pm last night, sat down next to my friend, and immediately raised my voice over polite conversational levels.

“Did you know,” I said, “did you know, that there are Columbia students, Columbia undergraduate students, who don’t know who Allen Ginsberg is?”

I had just arrived from dinner with engineering students (who, and I’m going to say this again, didn’t know who Allen Ginsberg was), and I was mildly outraged. One might say that mild outrage isn’t the best way to come into a poetry reading, but I simmered quietly, I seethed, and I sat, waiting for poets to remind me why I had the right to be angry. Expecting poets to remind me what about their medium made my anger worthwhile.

I was not disappointed.

The three poets who read last night were Fiona Wilson, Meg Tyler, and Rosanna Warren, in that order. All three women were invited by Saskia Hamilton, the current poetry professor in residence at Barnard and director of the Women Poets at Barnard program. And, in Women Poets at Barnard tradition, each poet was introduced by a current Barnard student.

Christina Ellsberg (BC ‘16 and self-professed “wild card”) introduced Fiona Wilson, British poet currently residing in New York and working at Sarah Lawrence, by reading selected lines from Wilson’s poems and describing the way she uses “local language of the natural world.” Christina urged everyone to buy Wilson’s book, finished her introduction by saying she would “take [her] finger out of the dam and let the sea speak for itself.”

Wilson herself read several short poems from her recent first book, A Clearance. The poems showcased a little bit of singing, a lot of amazing imagery, and clever assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia. Most of her poems were based in Scotland (including one notable found poem written from a news story from an 1811 version of the Edinburgh Review about a man who claimed he saw a mermaid), but a couple were what she called “New York poems.” One of these, called “Nuyoktok: 10 Hours,” took its title from a subway ad for a phone service.

And as I heard Wilson read lines like “a mild and gentle cacophony,” “the sun skip of a seagull,” and “Well, that’s a good looking poem, Bob says,” my mild outrage boiled quietly. It asked me how there are people who have never heard poetry like this.

The second poet of the evening was Meg Tyler, a teacher by Boston University who recently published her first book, Poor Earth. She was introduced by Anne Marie Bompart, BC ‘17, who read one of Tyler’s poems, then analyzed it, looking at the poem through the lens of the “inevitability of death and the resultant need to appreciate beauty.”

Tyler started her reading by announcing: “If I’m blushing a little, it’s because my teacher is here.” Rosanna Warren, the third poet to read, was her creative writing teacher 32 years ago, she explained. Her poems, however, did not focus on her teacher but on her daughter, and the feeling of loss. Her writing was not melancholy, however; it instead found optimism in the struggle of moving forward. “You have freed the winged creatures from my heart,” she read.

The second-to-last poem Tyler read (planned to go last, but her teacher asked her to read one more, and she complied) was the longest poem she has ever written. It describes her run through the town of Belfast, and her memories associated with it. The poem is called “To the Lord Mayor of Belfast,” and Tyler told us that she once read it to the actual Lord Mayor of Belfast. “He blushed deeper than I’ve ever seen a person blush,” she said. “And I said, ‘It’s really not about you,’ and he still blushed.”

Out in the audience, still boiling with mild outrage – but a softer, more wondering flavor of mild outrage now – I thought that I probably would have blushed if she read a poem to me, too.

The third poet was also the most experienced; Rosanna Warren has five books published, and currently works at the University of Chicago. Katy Lee, BC ’17, introduced her by talking about “Earthworks,” a long poem Warren wrote about Central Park that shifts through both space and time. Katy described that Warren’s poetry “has a way of bringing you so organically to a place that it must have grown from within you.”

And as I listened to Warren read her poetry, I let places grow from within me. She read poems about her younger self, about the difficulty of understanding snakeskin and Oedipus Rex, about Chanel, and about the homeless problem in France. All of her poems were so descriptive and so natural, it was clear that she knew exactly what she was writing and how to make her point. “These young women will last forever, posed like Greyhounds,” she read.

I am constantly enthralled at poetry readings. There’s something about the power of a single voice speaking alone without accompaniment that is so moving, like that moment at a rock concert when the instruments drop out and the lead singer pioneers on alone. At the end of the event, I was no longer asking myself, How do Columbia students not know who Allen Ginsberg is? Instead, I was asking myself a much broader question: How does anyone, anywhere, not appreciate poetry?

The only real answer I’ve found to this question is that poetry is often confusing, misleading, and seemingly impossible to understand. But for people who claim poetry is too difficult, I quote Fiona Wilson: “I had no idea what these words meant, but they sounded really great.” You don’t have to understand precisely what a poet is doing to know that a poem sounds really great, and that it feels really real.

And, please, if you don’t know who Allen Ginsberg is, look him up.

Mic stand via Shutterstock

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