Michael Coyle Offers Perspective on Poetry

“I didn’t like high school very much,” said Professor of English Michael Coyle at the start of his talk, “The Modernist Poems That Changed My Life,” as part of the Heretics Lunch Serires. “I was bored and unhappy and the only thing I cared about was my garage band.” This was all to radically change, however, when his AP English teacher introduced him to the modernist poets T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams.

 “It was the first time in my life I had encountered something that felt bigger than me, smarter than me, something that could stretch my ability,” Coyle said. “Poetry ever since has been really important to my sense of the world, and how it works, and my sense of who I am and what I value…We need to have some way of believing that our lives mean something. The world doesn’t give that to us, so we need to find it for ourselves, and all of these poems start at that place.”

 To explain this point, Coyle went on to share some of the poems that were particularly special to him. He began with “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, a poem whose message, Coyle explained, has been skewed over the course of its pop culture appropriation. He highlighted the fact that the poet ultimately claims to take “the road less traveled,” but his initial description of the two roads actually renders them nearly identical. That is to say, the speaker did not in fact take the road less traveled – he just rationalized it to himself that way.

 “The fact of the matter is that most of the choices we make in life are mostly blind, but we need to feel that our choices are meaningful, that there’s a purpose to our struggle. So we tell ourselves a story,” Coyle said.

 Coyle next went through “The Walls Do Not Fall” by Hilda Doolittle, an experimental poet who was for the most part too avant-garde to be widely accepted in her time. The poem describes a mollusk, a creature that protects itself from the sea with its hardened shell, only ever opening it to let in nourishment. Occasionally, however, an irritant accidentally gets in, which ultimately creates a pearl. Just like the mollusk, humans too create walls, which occasionally get breached.

 “What is the shell that we spin out of our own guts? It’s art, it’s music, it’s all of the different forms of human expression. And what is the function of art? To protect us from the weight of the infinite,” Coyle said.

 Coyle then moved the conversation to “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens, a poem that toys with constructs and inventions of human vision. Coyle explained how our ability to see is not an objective process, but one in which we project our own nature onto the objects that we view.

 “Our gaze makes things beautiful. It is our limitation and our greatest strength at the same time that we cannot know the natural world in its own terms, only in our terms,” Coyle said.

 Coyle concluded with a selection from “Spring and All” by William Carlos Williams. Williams, a doctor by day and a poet by night, felt that poetry should represent reality. His poetry mocks the abstruse style of his contemporaries and seeks to reacquaint the reader with the beauty of the supposedly ordinary world.

 “The purpose of modernist poetry is not to show you things you’ve never seen before, it’s to give you new eyes, to re-enchant the world, to look at your familiar routine world and feel it again,” Coyle said.

 Coyle finished by thanking the audience for engaging the poems with him and with a final comment on the personal significance of poetry.

 “When you re-read something that you already know well, especially if there’s been a passage of time, you see different things. Not just because you understand it better, but because you’ve changed in the interim and so re-engaging stuff you’ve read before is a really good way to take measure of your own changes… So you find poems that grab you, and you live with them your whole life, and then you can go back to them when you need them,” Coyle said.

 Heretics Lunch is a weekly brown bag that takes place in the chapel basement every Wednesday at 12:15 p.m. This semester’s theme is “The ______ that changed my life.” Next week will feature Assistant Professor of Educational Studies Mark Stern giving the talk “The Teachers that Facilitated my Messy, Complicated, and Painful Growth.”