“In poetry, you never know what’s coming, so I’ll be doing some ad-libbing,” joked Maxwell Corydon Wheat ’51 as he paced in front of a crowd of former classmates with the assurance that comes from years of teaching. Wheat, an accomplished poet and teacher, led an hour-long lecture titled “Everybody has the Ability to Enjoy a Poem!” which aimed to, as the title implies, instill an appreciation for poetry in his audience.
“Isn’t this a great place for poetry?” he asked, motioning to the spectacular view of the lake through the Seneca Room’s ample windows. His appreciation for nature’s aesthetic beauty was reflected in the poems he chose to explore during the lecture, including Billy Collins'”The Man in the Moon,” Wendell Berry’s “The Quiet,” Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and a few of his own works.
“American poetry offers fresh language experiences, fresh ideas about common subjects,” lauded Wheat. “However, ours is a culture that is uncomfortable with poetry. The question, ‘What does it mean?’ kills poetry. Students who are trained to simply ‘scan’ a poem grow to hate poetry, because they’re never given the chance to enjoy it,” he deplored.
“Don’t let meaning get in the way of enjoying the sounds and ideas of a poem. Just let meaning come. You’ll feel it before you can articulate what it is,” advised Wheat.
His emphatic gestures, dramatic pauses, and vocal inflections captivated his audience. Engaging questions elicited enthusiastic answers from his audience: “What is the effect of likening the moon to a ‘pale bachelor?'” Wheat asked.
“Novel impressions!” offered one audience member with vigor. “New relationships between ideas!”
“Exactly,” Wheat smiled. “The value of metaphor is discovery.”
Wheat thanked Jared Weeden ’91, director of alumni relations, for the opportunity to do his own kind of “missionary work” -enforcing the idea that anyone can enjoy a poem. “You already have the tools for good writing,” Wheat assured. “I believe that as you get older, you get more creative.”
A native of Geneva, Wheat shared some of his pieces inspired by important Geneva figures, including abstract turn-of-the-century artist Arthur Dove, many of whose works were based on his observations of Seneca Lake, and Anna Botsford Comstock, whose detailed notes on natural phenomena Wheat called “gifts for outdoor education.” Wheat’s current project is his Geneva Manuscript.
“The best part of coming back to HWS?” Wheat repeated the question, and cast a nostalgic glance down South Main. “Seeing all the houses on South Main Street, where I grew up. The street has taken on an attractive look, embellishing the beauty that I know. When I see these houses, I see names – and I remember. I feel as though I’m stepping with one foot into the past,” he explained. “But my other foot is solidly in the present.”