Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Form and Substance: Rachel Hadas, Poet and Professor

Ten of us gathered for "tea" yesterday with poet and professor Rachel Hadas. The circle of chairs encompassed an attention that she rode through more poems than she had announced she'd read, as people requested "more, another, that one."

Hadas uses her voice and eloquence strongly in reading, and the deliberate pace and alliterations reveal dense, powerful bones of the poems. She brought with her a dual response to the review I had posted on our web site ( of her new collection, THE RIVER OF FORGETFULNESS. One urge was to counter my assertion that the first third of the book includes "ragged edges of free verse" -- an implication of absent form or plan that she rejected firmly. The other was to demonstrate the pertinence of the book title. Death, she asserted, was but one aspect of the river Lethe that the collection probed; others included loss of memory, perhaps even of form, especially as we (poet and listeners) navigate midlife; and powerfully, the call of actual bodies of water like "the Water Andric," an enduring mountain stream nearby that bears a quintessentially British name.

I savored the vigor that this experienced Rutgers professor brought to the ad hoc classroom in the summer afternoon, along with the precise way she teaches and narrates. (I'll comment later about a remarkable essay of hers that she brought to our attention too, "Notes From the Kingdom of Illness.")

One moment of explanation captured both classroom and setting, here in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, with mountains rising in pre-thunderstorm haze and a wind of wildflowers sweeping the room: The Sapphic, she demonstrated, is a form of three "longish" lines in equal measures, followed by a short line that goes -- she demonstrated the beat -- "like, blueberry pancakes." Say it aloud: BLUE-berry PAN-CAKES.

Every head in the circle nodded or dipped with immediate recognition.

The poems, we will all read again and again, testing and plumbing for meaning and resonance. The teaching, we won't forget. What a gift...

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