Poetry to the Point

By Freeman, Terry | The Antioch Review, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Poetry to the Point


Freeman, Terry, The Antioch Review


I teach literature at West Point, where gray walls blend imperceptibly into stony Hudson Riverheights; where aging cannons silently challenge every rising sun; where weathered statues of Sylvanus Thayer - father of the Military Academy - and graduates such as Patton, Eisenhower, and MacArthur stare fixedly through the change of seasons; where embryonic Army of ficers march methodically to the martial drumbeat on a perfectly flat Plain; and where, for the past four years, every freshman cadet, or plebe, spends an entire semester reading poetry - lots of poetry. If that last element of my portrait of West Point surprises you, if the lightness, intimacy, and liberation of poetry seem at odds with your image of the stern, impersonal, regimented graduate of your Military Academy, then I hope you read on. Poetry has indeed breached the ramparts of West Point, and a new generation of West Pointers will hear its language resonate throughout their careers and their lives.

I certainly do not want to give the impression that literature at West Point constitutes some novelty. On the contrary, the core course in plebe year - a longtime fixture in the core curriculum - offered a cornucopia of prose fiction, drama, and even a little poetry. Unfortunately, in a crowded core as heavy in mathematics and sciences as in the humanities, this fare proved difficult to digest. As it was then constituted, the literature course could not offer cadets the one commodity they needed to experience the mysteries available within the sanctum of language: time to hear the poetic voice, time to absorb it, time to become it. And that is why and how poetry got its foot in the iron-hinged doors of Thayer Hall. By focusing only on poetry, the course could retrieve time by eliminating the hunt for language, by dropping cadets directly into language "when it is hard at work."

What happens in the classroom has pleased the poets who have come to lend their voices to the proceedings. For most classes in the forty-lesson syllabus, the cadets bring an essay addressing the uncommon language of a common poem. Sometimes reading the poem, sometimes reading their essays, sometimes listening to others read, the cadets routinely engage language and its connection to their and their classmates' public and private selves. From the flux between denotation and connotation, between definition and association, the cadets emerge with an expanded ability to see and speak their world and thereby create it afresh. In one sense, the ostensibly limiting environment of shared barracks and rigid schedules helps in this process; for cadets outside of the classroom can and actually do find multiple opportunities to share the poem and its language in an informal dynamic that begins before the class and continues after it.

I have already alluded to the practicing poets who come to West Point to give body to the speaking voice of their poetry. To date, Lucille Clifton, Karen Fish, Jane Hirshfield, Philip Levine, Larry Levis, Adrian C. Louis, Lynne McMahon, William Matthews, Alberto Rios, David St. John, Charles Simic, Mark Strand, David Wojahn, and Charles Wright have brought cadets the music of poetic language and a wide variety of its spoken tones and textures. Through multiple readings to groups of three hundred or more plebes, they have each engaged a thousand cadets who enter the auditorium familiar with their work and ready with questions about the poetic mind and the nature of poetic language.

The cadets themselves are asked to memorize a number of passages from Shakespearean plays for recitation and transcription in the classroom. I trust that this experience really does not end when the cadets graduate from the academy, that on a future battlefield or at a future treaty table they might call to action the sensibilities and ideas raised by Macbeth's thoughts on dusty death or Falstaff's catechism on honor. Though this requirement for memorization constitutes one of the more unusual aspects of the course, it merely hearkens back to a time when an American public, now stunned to apathy by vapid language or shoved to skepticism by disillusionment, once believed in the power of the word to restore or resurrect a world of beauties and potentialities. …

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