English professor finds ‘A Poem for Everyone’

Ryan Thompson

Eric McHenry, associate professor of English, presented a lecture “A Poem for Everyone,” April 25 in the Bradbury Thompson Alumni Center.

McHenry feels that part of his position as Poet Laureate of Kansas is to bring poetry to a broader audience. He prepared this lecture to help people who may not think they like poetry find a poem they will enjoy.

“Many more Americans than you would think have a favorite poem,” said McHenry. “You may not think poetry broadly is for you, but there is a poem out there for you if you are willing to look for it.”

McHenry feels that many people need to approach poetry in a more effective way.

“People are on one hand kind of reverent toward poetry but on the other hand kind of suspicious of it,” said McHenry.

He began the lecture by reading William Meredith’s “A Major Work.” He then told the audience that if they do not like a poem, it does not mean they have no taste. In fact, it probably means they have good taste, because otherwise they would like everything.

McHenry divided the lecture into three points. First, he talked about the diversity of poetry. To demonstrate this point, he read “A Measuring Worm” by Richard Wilbur. The poem was simple to understand, while still being packed with meaning.

“Every time I share [A Measuring Worm] with an audience I get a delighted reaction,” said McHenry. “It’s complex but instantly clear. If you think poetry is impenetrable, know that this poem is out there too.”

His second point was to judge poetry on its own terms rather than by the standards of other forms of literature, such as the novel.

“A poem is like the opposite of a page turner, a page stopper,” said McHenry. “If a poem is really good, the last thing I want to do is turn the page.”

Finally, he stressed the importance of treating poems as an experience and urged the audience not to worry about finding a simple point or reducing the poem to a quick lesson.

This lecture was the first in a series started by Laura Stephenson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to provide CAS faculty with opportunities to share their scholarly interests with the public.

“Because I was serving as Poet Laureate of Kansas, Dean Stevenson thought this would be a great opportunity to showcase that fact by asking me to give some sort of lecture,” said McHenry. “Later she had the idea that Washburn has extraordinary faculty all throughout the College of Arts and Sciences. She had the idea of launching the new lecture series called CAS Distinguished Lecturer Series. I was honored to give the lecture and really delighted by the audience’s attentiveness and the quality of the questions they asked me. I felt like good people came and made my job very easy.”

Tom Averill, associate professor of English, was among those audience members.

“I love that he knows poetry in his head,” Averill said. “Poetry is always part of him and you can tell. He has an enthusiasm for what he loves that is infectious.”