A poem is "one of the most nuanced of the arts in expressing what is human," said Cornell Professor Emeritus M.H. (Mike) Abrams, who shared some of his deep understanding and love of poetry in a public lecture, "On Reading Poems Aloud," July 16, in Alice Statler Auditorium.
"Poems, like all art forms, have a physical medium -- a material body that conveys the nonphysical," said Abrams, the Class of 1916 Professor of English Literature Emeritus, to the large audience. "A poem comes into a small physical being only briefly while reading it aloud."
Abrams pointed out that he has seen Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas all read their work, and that "there is no one right way to read a poem."
He discussed seven examples of the art of poetry, from Emily Dickinson and W.H. Auden to the late Cornell professor A.R. Ammons. The poems were also provided to the audience.
"I chose these examples because they are all splendid poems, [and] each presents its own challenge or opportunity," he said.
Auden's 1936 poem "Of This Island" is, Abrams said, "a youthful and exuberant display of his mastery of language" at age 28. Its scene, a sunlit seascape seen from the coast of Great Britain, is accented by a continuous play of speech sounds that "suggests the undulation of the moving water that produces those sounds."
While Auden consciously chose to employ some of the metrical tricks and techniques evident in the writing, inspiration also had a part.
"Being a good poet, the words just occurred to him -- they sounded just right," Abrams said. After having the audience read a stanza with him, he asked, "Did you taste those consonants?"
Abrams gave special attention to "Mansion," a short yet masterful 1963 poem by Ammons -- "indubitably a major American poet." Striking in its differences from the other six selections, "this spare and powerful little poem" is "whimsical, even playful, with a counter-traditional use of free verse," he said, with subtleties that might escape the casual reader, unmindful that it is "a poem about dying that tacitly celebrates living."
Abrams added: "Ammons is a meticulous craftsman. The effects of 'Mansion' are of an art that hides its art, conspicuously. ... The spoken poem [can] reveal what the poem conspicuously does not say."
Abrams also explored the "minute description" and "dislocation of concentrated reference" of Dickinson's "A Bird Came Down the Walk"; William Wordsworth's pained elegy to his deceased daughter in 1815, "Surprised by Joy"; and three poems with sex as a common thread: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's 1747 put-down of a seducer in "The Lover: A Ballad"; Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal" from 1847; and Ernest Dowson's "Cynara" from 1891.
Abrams, who joined the Cornell English faculty in 1945, is still an active and visible member of the Cornell community. Abrams celebrates his 96th birthday July 23, and in honor of the milestone, the Statler Hall audience was encouraged to sing "Happy Birthday" to him before the lecture.
An authority on 18th- and 19th-century literature, literary criticism and European Romanticism, Abrams is best known for his acclaimed book "The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition" (1953), ranked 25th on the Modern Library's list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century; and the "Norton Anthology of English Literature," which he conceived and has edited through seven editions since it was first published in 1962.
The lecture was sponsored by the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions.