The Poetry of Being Human

The fall 2014 Harman Academy Polymathic Pizza series focused on what it means to be human. In addition to our pre-planned programming, a spectacular docket of poetry-focused events punctuated the semester, bringing unanticipated depth to the already rich exploration of the human experience.  We welcomed internationally acclaimed poets Gerhard Falkner, Gwyneth Lewis, and David St. John to the Harman Academy, and student polymaths attended a special Visions and Voices event that brought the poetry of Emily Dickinson to life.  We found the poetic infusing our programming throughout the semester—serendipitously fitting we think, as it could be argued that poetry is one of the purest expressions of humanity.

For our first poetry-focused event of the year, we welcomed German poet Gerhard Falkner, an artist-in-residence at the Villa Aurora in 2014. Falkner considers himself a poet between modernity and post-modernity, and he brought a distinctly polymathic bent to the discussion and presentation of his poetry. Falkner doesn’t merely write poetry for publication – he presents his poems in visually compelling and challenging ways. Opening the session, Harman Academy student Colin Conwell exquisitely read a selection of Falkner’s poems in English.  Falkner then showcased several films that featured German actors reading his poems in German, some focusing on their faces and others using their voices as narration over a montage of images. Falkner conceives the poems and films simultaneously, not intending for them to exist as separate entities, but as an artistic whole together. Students were given a window into both the new potential for poetry in a multimedia setting, as well as a deeper understanding of how an interdisciplinary approach can transform and deepen the words and imagery of a poet.

In addition to Falkner’s innovative approach to poetry, a group of students from the Harman Academy’s Goethe Society had the opportunity to encounter another artistic, performative interpretation of poetry at the Visions and Voices event “This, and My Heart: A Portrait of Emily Dickinson.” The event juxtaposed dramatic readings of Dickinson’s poems and letters with operatic renditions of her poetry set to music. It painted a portrait of Emily Dickinson, placing her work in the context of her life, in the hands of a skilled soprano and actress. Additionally, the musical settings highlighted the inherent lyricism and musicality in Dickinson’s writing. It was another opportunity for our students to consider their humanity through the lens of poetry, as well consider poetry in a new light by examining it through interdisciplinary methods.

The Harman Academy was extremely privileged to also welcome Poet Laureate Emeritus of Wales, Gwyneth Lewis, a true polymath of our time. Lewis joined USC Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture Dana Gioia in conversation to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of her countryman, poet Dylan Thomas. In celebrating the Dylan Thomas centenary, selected students and Dr. Lewis movingly read selections of Thomas’ poetry to an audience of over 150 students.  Lewis then read her poetry and fielded questions from students, which led to an exploration of how her countryman inspired her as a poet and polymath.

Finally, the Harman Academy was privileged to welcome back Professor Dana Gioia and his class a second time for a conversation with renowned American poet David St. John, who is also a Professor of English and Comparative Literature here at USC. Students were again called to read a selection from the author’s works.  St. John’s poems detect the visceral moments of his life in ways that allow the hearer to see images, smell flowers, and feel the earth through his words.

Through these interactions with a diverse range of poetry and poets, guests of the Harman Academy were exposed to one of the highest expressions of our humanity in the midst of a term focused on probing what being human specifically entails. Through examining poetry, we came to a deeper understanding of ourselves and of humanity as a concept.  An unplanned, but welcome poetic enhancement to the Fall 2014 semester exploration On Being Human.

The Spring 2015 semester series Back into the Future is now underway.  The intersection betweenOn Being Human and science, technology, and looking into the future was perfectly segued last week with our opening Polymathic Pizza with Professor of Engineering Maja Mataric’s session on the relationship between humans and robots.  Students and Professor Mataric shared a positively polymathic discussion!  We look forward to seeing you at our upcoming events!