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The Defeat of Words: On Lyric Poetry

September 25, 2019 @ 6:00 pm - 7:30 pm

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“I don’t know how to explain it.”
“I just couldn’t put it into words.”
“I have no words.”

Most of us have felt our poverty in relationship to language sometime in our lives, perhaps rather frequently. Maybe it’s while writing a paper for a class. Maybe it’s in trying to express how we feel about someone dear to us. Maybe we’ve resorted to emojis when our fingers fail to find just the right phrase to text.

What does poetry have to do with this experience?

Emily Dickinson advises us, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” There is something about lyric poems—often short, personal, oblique, intense—and the way they seek to tell the “truth” about experience in a “slanted,” sometimes disorienting manner—that refreshes our experience of language, of others, of being itself. Lyric poetry invites a unique kind of response from us that other modes of language do not, and puts into words the kinds of human experiences that other modes of language cannot.

People sometimes struggle to read poetry or to find pleasure in it because of past experiences of being forced to “analyze” it convincingly or come up with some kind of intelligent interpretation of it. Some are frustrated with poetry’s lack of practicality—what is it for, we wonder? Some are put off by its resistance to clear explanation—it is unnecessarily confusing, we complain. “I, too, dislike it,” Marianne Moore memorably begins her poem aptly titled “Poetry.”

This seminar proposes a friendly, exploratory engagement with lyric poetry in hopes that, by contending with its unique demands together, we might cultivate habits of attention that help us read ourselves and the world around us better. We may even discover language that does some justice to our experiences of loneliness, gratitude, wonder—as one poet has noted: “It is by words and the defeat of words” that we learn to read the world anew.

Open to any and every Princeton student: lovers of poetry, new readers and skeptics welcome.


September 25, 2019
6:00 pm - 7:30 pm


Whelan Hall
16 Stockton Street
Princeton, NJ 08540 United States
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