Versed in life

Meghan Gordon

Award-winning poet Carl Phillips says the best poetry makes readers “re-see” everyday images or ideas they thought they understood.

“When I enjoy a poem, it’s because I’ve been shown a situation that I thought I understood pretty well and I think, ‘That’s another way to look at it,'” he said. “It leads to an examined way of going through life, which seems important no matter what you’re doing. Too many people go through life unthinkingly.”

This quarter, Phillips has helped students write with that new perspective as the Center for the Writing Arts’ writer-in-residence.

And from his three collections of poetry and a list of accolades — a Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and a Samuel French Mores Poetry Prize, among others — readers agree that his philosophy of crafting poems works.

During the workshop-structured class, students read their poems and listen to feedback from the class without being able to support or refute any interpretations. Phillips — a professor of creative writing and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis. — said the process helps students learn to get their point across in the poem the first time.

“The whole idea is to see how this poem gets read when I’m not there to speak for it, which can be frustrating when you feel like you know what a poem’s about and no one’s getting it,” he said. “That’s your job to communicate it.”

He also gives students examples of how famous poets use different techniques and encourages his students to apply them to their own poems.

But Phillips said teaching poetry has its limitations.

“You can teach craft, but I don’t think you can teach vision,” he said. “Once you have helped someone figure out how to do a sonnet, say, you can’t make it be a transcendent Shakespearean experience. That would be up to them. At least they know how to make something work — what the nuts and bolts are.”

He has encountered another limitation with the young students he’s worked with in his 17 years of teaching: Students have had less life experience than seasoned poets.

For example, when the class read a poem about a middle-aged mother who is dissatisfied that the grocery sacker doesn’t look at her anymore, they couldn’t put themselves in her place.

“A few students said, ‘No woman would ever feel that way,’ and from my own perspective of being 40, I do know that you can have that feeling,” Phillips said. “They didn’t conceive of that. I tell them, ‘That’s just because it hasn’t happened to you yet. Just wait, you’ll see.'”

The 20-year-old students still have valid perspectives to write poetry, he said.

“It’s important not to underestimate the experiences people can have had even though they’re only 18,” Phillips said. “It’s a matter of getting people to be perceptive enough and look more closely at things they have felt.”

After traveling around the world as a child, Phillips said he started to love writing as he learned different languages, including German, Latin and Greek.

Phillips started writing poetry in high school but didn’t publish his work until after studying classics at Harvard University and teaching high school Latin.

Weinberg senior Peter Kline said Phillips taught him to pare down his words to the central theme.

“He’s big on conciseness and eliminating unnecessary ideas,” Kline said.

Medill sophomore Kate Schwartz said her writing improved because of Phillips’ criticism of her poems.

“He’s a fantastic teacher,” she said. “He was really more of a poet than a professor.”