ERIE, Pa. — When did Columbus sail the ocean blue?
You probably learned that in verse, memorizing the 1492 poem in grade school. Rhyme, word association and alliteration have long helped us remember things. In fact, many scholars believe poetry predates literacy.
Before the majority of people could read and write, poetry was used as a means of recording oral history, genealogy, law and other forms of expression of knowledge. In fact, the greater part of the world’s sacred scriptures are written not as prose, but in poetic form.
But how does this ancient art form fit into today’s practical, capitalistic society? Who has time to engage in wordplay 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,” says George Looney, distinguished professor of English and creative writing at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. “It’s been said that science may save the world, but that art makes it worth saving. Art challenges conventional assumptions about the nature of the world and of us and our place in the world. Art also 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, delight, entertain and enlighten us.
“Poetry infuses the world with meaning through the crafting of language and form,” Looney says.
This spring, Looney, the author of seven full-length collections and two chapbooks of poetry as well as a collection of fiction stories, was named distinguished professor at Penn State Behrend, 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 18 years as a faculty member at Penn State Behrend, Looney has opened many eyes to the art of poetry. We asked him to discuss his craft.
Q: What, for you, is the most difficult part of writing poetry?
Looney: 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 it’s a necessary part.
Q: What are your favorite topics when writing?
Looney: Yeats once wrote that the only fit subjects for poetry were sex and death. I don’t think I can improve on Yeats.
Q: What is your process for writing poetry? What comes first?
Looney: 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.
Q: Who are your favorite poets?
Looney: 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.
Q: What does a good poem do to or for its reader?
Looney: 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.
Q: What are good poems for beginners to start with to cultivate an appreciation for the art?
Looney: I’d suggest poems from “Making Certain it Goes On: The Complete Poems of Richard Hugo”; “Winter Stars” and “The Widening Spell of the Leaves,” by Larry Levis; and “New and Selected Poems: 1974-1994,” by Stephen Dunn.
Q: What do you like about teaching poetry?
Looney: 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.
Q: What is your proudest accomplishment so far?
Looney: Having Stephen Dunn write a jacket blurb for one of my books, and 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!