It was a brave thing the committee did, choosing poetry for this year’s Common Book at the University of Washington.
Brave, that is, and enlightened.
The selection committee decided on poetry for the first time after four years of selecting prose for the annual Undergraduate Academic Affairs initiative. The Common Book "introduces freshmen to the college-level process of academic inquiry."
The first four UW Common Books were stellar choices: Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains; Field Notes from a Catastrophe, by Elizabeth Kolbert; Luis Alberto Urrea's Devil’s Highway; and Dreams of My Father by Barack Obama.
But poetry was an enlightened step. Who, please, would argue with poet extraordinaire Mary Oliver: "Poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry."
We remember poems; they can change our minds or maybe our hearts. It is never too early to discover that a poem is a minute of sanctuary in an over-subscribed life or a speedy route to another truth about our world. Or that it's pure, sweet indulgence — in beauty, or mastery or wit.
And in a communication-saturated world, poetry is the antidote to cheap or flabby expression. In a poem, every syllable and piece of punctuation is chosen for a purpose; a poem's power rides on wringing the full potential from its language.
UW freshmen, who start classes Sept. 29, will all have the slim volume, You Are Never Where You Are, a collection compiled at UW for this year's project. "Through a common text," as the copyright page expects, "students begin to discuss and examine a particular theme, issue or topic, using the book as a common point of entry."
The selection committee took a chance here because at least some of the incoming freshmen may think they don't like poetry. (That is before they realize that their favorite music probably uses poetry for lyrics, of course.) Or maybe a student is intimidated by poetry, or figures it's more relevant to his grandmother.
Here's betting the resistant students are surprised. These 15 poems were created by 15 poets, each one different in form, in rhythm, and sound; each with its own thing to say. They tell their truths via scenes, topics, and words that will feel familiar to students 19 or 20 years old.
Colleen McElroy's "Bad Slam Broadway," speaks of evenings the freshmen know — or soon will: "Saturday nites we come cellophaned / in outrageous rags hair dyed / day-glo Martian and body pierced…”
We can hear Denver poet Ken Arkind reading his provocative “An Experiment in Noise in A Sharp Major” at a poetry slam and about half-way into it, urging: “No. / You will not touch me. / No. / You will not call me that word. / No. / I will not move.”
This is not your grandfather’s poetry book. But a grandfather would find in these pages timeless observations revealed in new settings.
The late Seattle writer Richard Hugo's "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg," counsels: “The car that brought you here still runs.”
In "Antioquia," Carlos Andres Gomez, twice a finalist in the National Poetry Slam competition, wonders if Abuelita, a grandmother in Colombia, was "born to a life of folded cardigans / and stacked slippers, proper tea / breaks, and starched blouses."
Naomi Shihab Nye, who calls herself a "wandering poet," opens "Famous" with: "The river is famous to the fish."
If a grandmother borrowed "You Are Never Where You Are," she would copy down at least one of these poems—maybe my favorite, Alberto Rios' "I Saw You Tomorrow" — and carry it around to read until the paper disintegrates in her purse.
These poems, like so many others, bear re-reading. And that sounds like the start of academic inquiry.
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