Whitman & Dickinson: Lives, Times, & Poetry


April 16, 2017

whitmanpostageThe two most famous American poets, who changed the landscape of American poetry, are featured in new Professor Scott Pett’s upcoming class “Whitman and Dickinson.” According to Pett, both poets have been mistyped and misunderstood over the ages. We checked with Pett to find out more. 

WIH Reporter: What is important for us to know about your upcoming class?

Pett: In this class, students will become more familiar with the poems and lives of (in my opinion) America’s two greatest writers, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Admittedly, this is a bit ambitious for a four-week class! We’re going to cover what we can. But I think the true goal of the class is for students to learn to read and hear all poems in a more conscious way. Ultimately, this class will familiarize students with America’s most masterful poets and help elevate their love of poetry in general.

After all, poetry is one of the few ways we can give our souls a bath. As William Carlos Williams says, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

WIH Reporter: What would surprise us to know about your class?

Pett: The Whitman and Dickinson we were taught in high school and college surveys reside on opposite ends of the eccentricity spectrum. On one side is Whitman, the show-off; on the other is Dickinson, the recluse. There is truth to these portrayals, of course; but they are also misleading and superficial. Whitman celebrates himself as “the poetic voice” of the United States, sounding his “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world;” but he also quietly wonders “in perfect silence at the stars” and ponders a “noiseless, patient spider.”

Dickinson is perhaps even more mistyped as a kind of white-dress wearing New England nun.

WIH Reporter: Can you elaborate more about Dickinson?

Pett:  Though certainly a private person, her home life was complex, even at times explosive. Many poems and letters are marked for their linguistic and emotional “white heat”: social defiance, religious skepticism, sexual euphoria, psychological distress, and natural adulation. The volcano, for instance – simultaneously “reticent” and “torrid” – was one of her favorite images.

WIH Reporter:  What other mistaken impressions might folks have about poetry in general?

Pett: Poetry intimidates some people! Compared to prose writing, which provides a familiar structure that helps the reader feel situated and comfortable, poetry can seem baffling. Its possibilities seem endless; its “meanings” elusive. But in fact, poems share a lot in common with prose. Most poems have sentences, as well as plot. Many have characters and dialogue. Contrary to popular belief, poems cannot mean whatever one wants them to mean. There are concrete strategies for unpacking them. That isn’t to say there is one “correct” reading of any poem; only thoughtful readings that require attentiveness to detail.

Lastly, we tend to focus on poems as textual objects for hushed, self-possessed study. But poems are as much about sound as they are language. That means we need to read them aloud; in doing so, poetry becomes not only an intellectual art, but also a bodily one. Poetry is physical, which means it is intimate, personal, and vulnerable. And poetry is one of the few ways we can give our souls a bath. As William Carlos Williams says, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

WIH Reporter: What format do you plan to use in the class?

Pett: A large portion of the class will be lecture with PowerPoint, but we will have class discussions as well. In my experience, poems are more likely to come alive in a group setting than an individual one. If we can have lively, productive conversations, the poems themselves will to some extent be the teacher of this course!

WIH Reporter:  What books are on your night table right now?

Pett: My night table is always covered with books that help me relax after the craziness of the day. Right now, I’m reading the poet Joy Harjo’s memoir Crazy Brave (2012), Ada Limón’s latest collection of poems Bright Dead Things (2015), Justin Cronin’s epic dystopian thriller The Passage (2012), Naomi Shihab Nye’s collection of very short stories There Is No Long Distance Now (2011), and Barbara Neely’s detective novel Blanche on the Lam (1992). And before putting my kids to bed, I always read them a poem or two by Robert Frost or Maya Angelou.

WIH Reporter: Anything else we should know?

Pett: This is my first class at the Women’s Institute, and I am very excited. I expect to learn as much from the students as I hope they will learn from me.

Professor Pett’s class begins on Tuesday, May 9th at 1:00 p.m. For more information, or to register, click here.