Penn’s rich poetry legacy

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman -
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root -
Let there be commerce between us.
-- “A Pact” by Ezra Pound

When poet Ezra Pound attended Penn in the early 1900s, it’s doubtful he knew just how radically his poetry would change the American literary landscape. But his work, as well as that of another Penn alumnus, William Carlos Williams, did precisely that.

Their sharp phrasing and unconventional verse influenced a new breed of poets—the modernists—who rejected traditional formalism and seeded the soil that a century later would produce the fertile field of contemporary written and spoken word that Penn is known for today.

Over the past 15 years in particular, Penn has grown into a powerhouse of modernist poetry, says Al Filreis, the Kelly Family Professor of English and the founder and faculty director of the Kelly Writers House. With prominent authors and scholars such as Bob Perelman and Charles Bernstein joining the already solid English Department faculty, the creation of the Kelly Writers House in 1995 (where some of the world’s most notable poets come to present readings and lead workshops), and the emergence of a robust spoken word scene on campus anchored by the student-run Excelano Project, the study of poetry at Penn is as strong as it’s ever been.

Perelman, one of the leaders of the avant-garde “language poetry” movement out of California, came to Penn in 1990, bringing with him a rich résumé of written work, a deep knowledge of literary criticism and a talent for teaching.

Filreis says Perelman’s arrival was the first of two major coups for Penn’s poetry program. The second was the addition of Bernstein, the Donald T. Regan Professor of English, in 2003. Perelman represents the evolution of West Coast poetry, Filreis says, and Bernstein embodies the finest of the East Coast branch of contemporary verse. “None of the Ivy League schools were really as actively engaged with contemporary poetry as was Penn,” Bernstein says. “And my being hired was an even greater commitment to that.”

The rich men, they know about suffering
That comes from natural things, the fate that
Rich men say they can’t control, the swell of
The tides, the erosion of polar caps
And the eruption of a terrible
Greed among those who cease to be content
With what they lack when faced with wealth they are
Too ignorant to understand. Such wealth
Is the price of progress. The fishmonger
Sees the dread on the faces of the trout
And mackerel laid out at the market
Stall on quickly melting ice. In Pompeii
The lava flowed and buried the people
So poems such as this could be born.
-- “Pompeii” by Charles Bernstein

In 2005, Bernstein and Filreis decided to push the poetry envelope even further by creating PennSound, a groundbreaking online archive of poetry audio recordings offering more than 21,000 digital files to the public for free. PennSound attracts 4 million downloads a month, and has become a site that is sought out by serious poets for the preservation of their work.

“At Penn, perhaps, PennSound is not so significant, but in poetry, its development was a major thing, and through it everybody has heard about Penn,” Bernstein says. “Al’s creation of the Kelly Writers House, his establishment of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and PennSound set the framework to make us internationally prominent in poetry.”

Poetry at Penn took yet another leap forward in December 2008, when two anonymous donors gave the Gotham Book Mart Collection—a historical treasure trove of modern literary documents from the landmark store in New York City—to Penn Libraries. The collection includes more than 200,000 items, including poetry, experimental literary magazines and books printed by Black Sparrow Press, one of the premier publishers of avant-garde literature.

Among students, Penn has a shining reputation as a vibrant and creative poetry center, says Justin Ching, a rising senior majoring in urban studies. Ching is the director of the Excelano Project, a student-organized spoken word group that competes and performs around the world.

Recently, Excelano member and 2010 graduate Joshua Bennett performed at the White House, receiving a standing ovation from President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and about 200 guests attending the first White House Poetry Jam.

“I feel so fortunate to have stumbled upon the Excelano Project at Penn,” Ching says. “I’m constantly humbled by the talent of people in the group.” Poetry, he says, is finding its future at Penn because students are encouraged to experiment with the sound, sight and musicality of words.

Feet,
dangling
At my eye
level, that is
how I remember
you best. Wish I could have
stopped you, too bad I had
the chance. At night, I still avoid
trees, scared my nose will run into toes.
I wonder how the view is from up there.
-- “Toes” by Justin Ching

Whether they are taking classes in poetry, or simply soaking in the popularity of it on campus, Ching says students at Penn appreciate the complexity and artistry of well-crafted verse. Of course, he adds, that’s no surprise.

“As a poet, you can go to all kinds of other places, even poetry cafes, and not get the kind of love you get here,” he says. “If you are into this scene at all, you know Penn.”

Originally published on May 20, 2010