A Place for Poetry

George Looney, distinguished professor of English and creative writing.

George Looney, distinguished professor of English and creative writing.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

When did Columbus sail the ocean blue? Thanks to the verse we all memorized in grade school, you probably recall that it was 1492.

Verse, rhyme, word association, alliteration—in essence, poetry—has long helped us remember things. In fact, poetry predates literacy.

Before people could read and write, poetry was used as a means of recording oral history, storytelling (epic poetry), genealogy, law, and other forms of expression or knowledge that modern societies might expect to be handled in prose. In fact, the greater part of the world’s sacred scriptures are made up of poetry rather than prose.

But how does this ancient art form fit into today’s practical, hard-nosed, capitalistic society? Who has time to engage in word play when there are widgets to improve, profits to be maximized, and modern conveniences to invent? Why make room for poetry today?

“The value of poetry is the value of all the arts,” said George Looney, distinguished professor of English and creative writing. “It’s been said that science may save the world but art makes it worth saving. Art challenges conventional assumptions about the nature of the world and of us and about our place in the world. And art gives meaning to an indifferent universe and provides solace as well as joy and pleasure.”

Solace. Joy. Pleasure. Meaning.

Is life not a constant quest for these very things?

The poet then, through his or her use of language and literary structure, can comfort us, delight us, entertain us, and enlighten us.

“Poetry infuses the world with meaning through the crafting of language and form,” Looney said.

This spring, Looney, author of seven full-length collections and two chapbooks of poetry as well as a collection of fiction stories, was named distinguished professor, an honor bestowed on fewer than 150 Penn State faculty members. To receive the designation, a faculty member must be an acknowledged leader in his or her field, show leadership in raising the standards of the University, and provide significant contributions to the education of students.

In his eighteen years as a faculty member at Behrend, he has opened many eyes to the ancient literary art.

We asked Looney to discuss his craft with us.

What is the hardest part of writing poetry for you? The hardest part is the revising process that follows on the heels of completing the exploratory first draft. That first draft discovers, through the process of working with language, something worth saying. This act of exploration and discovery is the pleasure for the writer (as Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”) Revising is the harder part of the process—but a necessary part.

What are your favorite topics to write about? Yeats once wrote that the only fit subjects for poetry were sex and death. I don’t think I can improve on Yeats’ statement!

What is your process for writing poetry? What comes first? This has varied over the years. Currently, I find that I’m utterly incapable of writing singular poems. I need to write poems that are part of a project. For example, the manuscript I’m currently working on is a book-length series of poems that respond to photographs from the 1930s by Walker Evans.

Who are your favorite poets? Richard Hugo, Larry Levis, and Stephen Dunn are the three who are most important to me. There are, however, many other poets whose work I also love and learn from.

What does a good poem do to/for its reader? It pleases both through its unique and invigorating use of language and by the singular vision it offers of the world and our experience of it.

What are good poems for beginners to start with to cultivate an appreciation for the art? I’d suggest poems from Making Certain It Goes On: The Complete Poems of Richard Hugo, Winter Stars and/or The Widening Spell of the Leaves by Larry Levis, and New and Selected Poems: 1974-1994 by Stephen Dunn.

What do you like about teaching poetry? I enjoy being present when a student begins to grasp what poetry has to offer them and then begins to want it. My goal is to create an environment in which this can occur. The best ammunition I have in that effort is my own passion for the art of poetry.

What is your proudest accomplishment so far? Having Stephen Dunn write a jacket blurb for one of my recent books, then hearing him publicly praise it among a group of writers and to his wife. It’s an incredible feeling to have someone I admire think highly of my work. A year or two later, he told a former student of mine who was working on her MFA in Georgia that I had really figured something out in my work. I just wish I knew what it was he thinks I have figured out!