Mining for poetic gold: Haven to excavate the depths of history and poetry with Brown Bag


Gaze backward into the gaping maw of time, and be sure to make it personal.Stephen Haven thinks it can help create a better poem.

Haven will demonstrate this with his Brown Bag lecture, called “Poetic and Personal Meditations on History,” at 12:15 p.m. today on the front porch of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall.

Haven’s lecture will focus on utilizing history in personal poetry to create greater depth and understanding.

“I’ll talk about not only history as a way of broadening the poem, but any knowledge source,” Haven said. “If you allow yourself that breadth of information — you can understand more deeply your personal moment.”

Haven said that incorporating knowledge and history into personal poetry is easier than ever today, especially with the advent of the Internet.

“You could maybe even find it on Wikipedia,” Haven said.

It’s a poetry technique Haven has experience with. He incorporates both personal history — he spent two years living in China, is the son of an Episcopal priest, and grew up in a working-class factory town in upstate New York — and broader cultural history into his own work. His book of poems, The Last Sacred Place in North America, does just that. Haven said utilizing the historical in tandem with the personal is a way “to achieve a greater sense of breadth and depth in a personal poem.”

For Haven, poetry is a way of riddling out the world around him.

“It’s just a way to wake myself up to the realities of my life,” Haven said. “And it’s a way to concentrate on my own life and the lives of people around me in a way that I might not be quite so fully aware of if I didn’t have that vehicle of poetry to take me there.”

Haven believes incorporating knowledge and history can be a way of augmenting the poetic experience and drawing people in.

“I think it gives the audience a greater access to a poem,” Haven said. “Whether or not they’ll bother to read the poem at all — in the media explosion that we’re in the midst of, poetry has to compete with all of these other art forms and forms of expression in the media. So if the audience is willing to read the poem, then there’s a greater basis of access to the material. It doesn’t seem too exclusively personal.”

Haven said that his Brown Bag will focus on Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” and Larry Levis’ “There are Two Worlds,” two poems he considers to be great examples of using history in poetry to enhance deeply personal subject matter.

“In both those poems, there’s a personal narrative that opens up in a really powerful way,” Haven said. “There are many kinds of narrative threads that are braided together into this holistic effect. And some of them are personal, and some of them are more broadly cultural.”

Haven knows that not everybody who attends his Brown Bag will be a poet, but he hopes it will be an enlightening experience for all.

“I would hope that they would become better readers of poems or that they’ll begin to think about ways that poems can be both confessional and offer something far beyond the confessional poem in the narrowest sense,” Haven said.

This will be Haven’s second Brown Bag lecture
at Chautauqua. Haven said he enjoys the “roundtable” feel of the format, and that “there’s a greater and freer exchange of comments and ideas.”

He’s also excited about sharing and discussing Lowell and Levis’ poems with a fresh audience.

“I love going back into a text and fielding comments that may point out things about the poems that I haven’t even thought of before,” Haven said. “So I think I’ll learn more about the poems and the audience will as well.”