Poets offer different perspective at readings

Photo courtesy of Michael Beckwith

This past Thursday, the latest segment in the Poetry at Tech series brought two very different poets to the stage. The first was Ellen Bass, a New Jersey native who studied with Anne Sexton at Boston University.  She has written numerous poems and non-fiction pieces and is currently a professor in the MFA program at Pacific University in Oregon. She began by reading an assortment of pieces from her most recent collection, “Like A Beggar,” and also additional works that she published in the New Yorker. One of the most evident features that permeates many of her poems is a stylish and dark sense of humor. Ellen’s voice was calm and clear, which strongly contrasts with the events described in her writing. She tends to highlight aspects of daily human life that seem mundane or annoying, then transforms them into exciting narratives.

In particular, many of her poems are written about certain moments in her life where she discovered new or interesting experiences that brought her pleasure. In “The Orange-and-White High-Heeled Shoes”, she reminisces about shoe shopping, while she enumerates the joys of killing her first chicken in the poem, “What Did I Love”. At times, her tone can be curt, and her words biting, yet her poems have just enough levity to remind the reader to appreciate the little aggravations in life for their own sake. A noteworthy line in one of Ellen’s poems “Reincarnation”, aptly embodies a theme very apparent in her writing: “Humbly, the oyster persists in filtering seawater and fashioning the daily irritations into lustre”. Unafraid to tackle topics on sexuality, death and drug use, Ellen’s poetry is fearless and demands the attention of the audience when performed on stage.

William Corbett, the second reader for the evening, was a significant presence in the Boston literary scene who has taught at both MIT and Harvard. For many years, William and his wife Beverly used their home in the South End of Boston as a meeting place for artists young and old alike. In the salon which the Corbetts created, one might find such literary greats as Seamus Heaney, John Ashbery, or Don DeLillo. Their home also helped to cultivate aspiring artists.

Jhumpa Lahiri was invited to the Corbetts’ household while working in a bookstore with their daughter. She later recalled to the Boston Globe “that time  [at the Corbett home] changed me in a fundamental way,” and has since become an internationally acclaimed, Pulitzer prize-winning author. The Corbetts have since moved from Boston to Brooklyn, bringing an end to their home as a hub of Boston’s literary world.

Unlike Ellen, William Corbett read many poems that were the works of other poets. Corbett selected some works by the poets who visited him and wife at theirfamily home during that tenure in Boston. During the readings, William was able to muster the passion that one might think is only present when reading one’s own work. He seemed to have an intimate knowledge of the poems he was reading and the direction the authors were attempting to steer the readers. This is partly a reflection of William’s sincere appreciation for the works of others, especially those who he considers his friends.

A nostalgia associated with past time spent with dear friends seemed to be a commonality among the works that William chose to present. He read several poems that mimicked the process one might undergo when recalling fond memories, where even the staccato style of his voice imitated the haphazard chain of connections made while reminiscing.

This was illustrated in his reading of “Off The Top”, a poem listing seemingly disconnected places and things as William provided a jazz-like performance where each successive utterance could have been mistaken for improvised spoken word. It is evident in works such as this that William selected poems that reveal and explore new dimensions when read aloud. That is, the sounds and pauses in each verse are just as vital to the poem as the meaning of the words themselves.

After both Ellen and William finished reading, they were available outside of the auditorium for discussion and book signing. For those students who want to get involved with poetry, this was a perfect time to meet other beginners or consult those who are more experienced. The Poetry @ Tech event helped to provide exciting insight into the arts programs
at Tech.