Professor of English James Longenbach spoke Monday evening at the Welles-Brown Room in Rush Rhees Library to a filled room, sharing his insights and inspirations in a poetry reading from his published collections.

The reading – the first in a series of events marking “English Week” at UR – was also one of the last in the year’s Plutzik Series of literary exhibitions.

Longenbach was brief in his comments, introducing himself humorously in the third person before launching into his poetry.

He began at the beginning for him, the time immediately after his birth and prefaced the first poem with explanation.

“You know that if you’re born, after you’re born your family tells stories about you. One of the stories that was told about James Longenbach, at 2:10 in the afternoon, unlike normal babies, he refused to open his eyes. Later in life he wrote a poem about being born,” he said.

The poem was entitled “Visible World” – an abstract view of the last moments of prenatal life. He described it metaphorically in part, of being in a place of nature. “They combed the fields, ’til one of us broke free. They wrapped our bodies in towels. Fed us. Looked in our eyes.”

He also talked about the structure of “Visible World,” and why it continues to captivate his interest. “What does interest me is the fact that the poem never gets beyond the threshold. It ends where it begins.”

This theme also continued as he read from the poem “Threshold of the Visible World,” stemming from the ideas of life’s beginning and the start of experience.

“The pieces that composed the pattern are not new. He realized he knew nothing of the universe. As children do, he began to learn,” he read.

“We go past the threshold, to see what it might mean. To open one’s eyes,” he said, interpreting the piece.

He then read from his work, “Fleetwood,” and felt it would enhance the experience by reading all the pieces from start to finish.

“It’s meant to be absorbed as one whole thing, in all of its pieces,” he said. He also emphasized the experience of the audience as important.

“Feel at liberty to phase in and phase out, to hear something that captures you and then mystifies you, and then captures you again,” he said.

He then read “Visible World” again and continued on with his works continuously for a period.

“Unspoken” was a poem with an urban theme, of two people joining together. “Somehow it was as if we’d been apart and found each other in a crowd as if nothing had happened,” he read.

“Fleet River” and “Orion” had nature motifs, with reflections on river life and the stars, respectively.

Longenbach took a break to explain a little about the writing process and how long it takes to create a complete poem.

“Poems as I write them take forever to finish, years usually – great stacks of paper accumulated,” he said.

He also gave his personal insight on literature. “We write the things we want to get rid of and read the things you want to regain,” he said.

Longenbach then read a poem by Renaissance author Sir Thomas Wyatt, noting its importance to him as a source of inspiration.

“Hundreds of years later poetry has not gotten weirder than that. It is so permanently strange. Since I am obsessed with it, I rewrote it. It is something palpably mine. It’s really an effort to translate language into a different language,” he said.

Longenbach’s version of Wyatt’s poem, called “Before Time,” was modified with his personal touch.

“I was desirable because, for a moment, I was anybody,” he read.

He also reflected on the idea of humanness. “To know I exist I had to imagine myself completely alone,” he said in his poem “Close Up.”

His last poems were “Iris” and “Ascension,” continuing the motif with descriptive poems of nature and life, respectively.

Student reaction was positive on the reading. “From when he introduced himself through when he read someone else’s poem, he spoke to each one of us individually,” junior Robert Matos said.

“I thought he was wonderfully eloquent,” UR graduate student Jenny Douglas said. “His poetry had a great simplicity and clarity to it that I really enjoyed.”

Longenbach had both concrete and abstract imagery in his works, light and dark, and ended on a note of sadness. “We can’t remember what brought us here,” he said. “The consolation for having been born is being forgotten.”

Linden can be reached at klinden@campustimes.org.



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