This is one in a series of essays by DePauw faculty members as they reflect on teaching and learning DePauw-style. Joe Heithaus is an English professor who has taught literature and writing at DePauw since 1996. His book "Library of My Hands" is due out in spring.
Derrick Truby ’17, a music performance major, took an introductory literature class I called “What Good is Poetry?” his senior year. By the time he got to my class, I’d already seen him in some DePauw productions, so it felt like I had a star in my classroom. He is a big man with incredible stage presence. I just googled him to find that he has a role in Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the Folger Library in Washington D.C this month. He has an incredible voice. Derrick is going places. But there he sat at a small desk in a classroom in Asbury Hall. What I remember is how he would walk into the room swooning over the poems he’d read for class. His eyes electric. His smile charged.
When I teach poetry, I’m often getting people past a fear instilled by some teacher who was perhaps afraid of poetry too. For me, confronting a poem requires some humility. It isn’t always our job to conquer the poem, to solve its riddles. Rather, the best poems require us to appreciate their mystery and live in that mystery for a while. Often, we have to see our own smallness inside the poem’s sometimes large and profound meanings and implications that reveal themselves slowly through discussion and silent thought.
Confronting a poem requires some humility. It isn’t always our job to conquer the poem, to solve its riddles.
Ideally, over the course of a semester, my students have moments in class when they become supplicants to the power of language. They hear deeply a poem’s music; they see vividly its images or sense its perfumes. I’m not sure why I remember Derrick so much, but, like I said, he’d swoon. Perhaps because he was so expressive, I could see how poetry got to him and into him.
My great fortune of being a professor at DePauw is watching students find a combination of words that not only challenges them intellectually, but leaves them struck, feeling their own humanity in a new way, sensing, sometimes suddenly, the filaments that tie them to each other, to the earth, to the universe itself. It doesn’t happen every day and doesn’t happen for every student, but beyond Derrick, I’ve witnessed hundreds of others come alive through the power of great writing.
Sometimes I’ll see a student walk across campus today who will remind me of a student I had long ago. If I started naming names of students I’ve witnessed being transformed by a poem or a story, I’d fill a page or two, then feel bad for leaving some people out. Last semester I sent an email to a group of former students who had been English majors at DePauw. Those who replied reminded me that the lessons of literature, both in reading it and trying to produce it, have an incredibly long shelf-life. Amarilis Roman ’16 wrote back with what reads like an ad for being an English major at DePauw and how choosing a major is also choosing a community. She writes, “Asbury was an emotional safe-haven for me; I felt a sense of belonging in that building that I did not feel anywhere else on campus. The Writing Center … the Kelly Writers Series … meeting one-on-one with all my professors (I can't forget Schwipps’ big chair) … so many aspects of the English Department sparked a light in my heart and energized me during hard times at DePauw. I hope current students feel the same way!”
My great fortune of being a professor at DePauw is watching students find a combination of words that not only challenges them intellectually, but leaves them struck, feeling their own humanity in a new way, sensing, sometimes suddenly, the filaments that tie them to each other, to the earth, to the universe itself.
Andy Cullison ’01, now the director of DePauw’s Prindle Institute for Ethics, remembers me reading a poem in a class he took 20 years ago. “Falling” by James Dickey. The poem takes a snippet from a news article about a stewardess falling from an airplane and imagines her – a disturbing, but somehow riveting and memorable image that comes to us in the poem like a slow-motion film. Neither of us really knows what the poem means, but, because we were humbled before it so many years ago, that poem still lives in Andy and me and maybe others from that class, that moment of it being read aloud.
So here’s to Derrick and Amarilis and Andy and the hundreds like them whom I’ve taught at DePauw for more than 20 years. And to the students in the future who will come this small town in the Midwest and find themselves, unexpectedly, swooning over a poem.