Rhina P. Espaillat, the West Chester University Poetry Center’s Poet-in-Residence for 2005, gave a free lecture on the importance of craft and form in poetry at 4 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 27 in Emilie K. Asplundh Concert Hall, followed by a free poetry reading at 7 p.m. at the same location.During her lecture on craft, Espaillat, who moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was seven, stated that an attitude prevailed in the 20th century, which stressed content over craft. “People in the 20th century came to believe that poetry is made of thought,” she said. “That attitude comes from a misunderstanding of what poetry is.”
Unlike poets that ignore or dislike rhyme, meter and other traditional elements of poetry, Espaillat urged inspiring poets to employ traditional elements in their poetry. “Craft loosens your hands if you’re an artist because it brightens the imagination,” she said.
Espaillat also stressed that poetry should have musicality, which makes it pleasing to the ear. “Poetry sings,” she said. While talking about the elements of sound in poetry, Espaillat confessed that she was attracted to poetry as a child because of its sound and rhythm, and she said in an interview for The Quad that her process of writing poetry begins with a beat or particular sound in her mind.
The Poet-in-Residence admitted that the attitude toward poetry is changing and people are becoming more accepting of craft and form, but she said that poetry must be made more universal instead of only being read and written by an elite group of people.
To make poetry more accessible and universal, Espaillat encouraged poets not to be afraid of experimenting with different crafts and techniques, such as rhyme. “We need to get back to the kind of poetry that is pleasurable for the person writing it and pleasurable for the person reading it,” she said.
Espaillat also stated that craft is important because it allows poets to deal with the emotions and sudden turns in life. “[Craft] is the perfect way to manage and handle what life gives you,” she said in an interview after the lecture.
In the interview, she also said it is beneficial for young poets to read well-known poets, including Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, and she mentioned that it is often a good idea for poets to find a poem they like and imitate it, especially its form and style because it will be an educational, challenging experience.
At the conclusion of her lecture, Espaillat read three poems, including “Prosody ,” which is a poem about words and music, and “Song,” which is a poem about her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer ‘s disease and her mother’s loss of language.
In the evening, Espaillat returned to Emilie K. Asplundh Concert Hall to give a free poetry reading. Several of the poems she read were from her latest publication of poetry, Playing at Stillness, including “Old House, “Physics,” and “On the Avenue.”
Other poems Espaillat read were from her published collection of poems entitled The Shadow I Dress In, including the poem “You Who Sleep Soundly Through Our Bleakest Hour,” which the poet said was relevant to the tumultuous and disastrous situations of today, like Hurricane Katrina, because she wrote it when the Mississippi River overflowed years ago.
Though the Poet-in-Residence read several of her own poems Thursday night, she also read famous Robert Frost poems, including “The Oven Bird” and “The Gift Outright.” First, Espaillat read the poems in English, and then she read them in Spanish. Currently, she is working on translating Frost’s poetry from English to Spanish. She also read another poem in English then Spanish.
Espaillat wrote “For My Great-Great Grandson the Space Pioneer” in Spanish originally and later translated it into English.
Espaillat explained in the interview why she enjoys reading poetry in English and Spanish. “I like to read in my native language because I think it’s beautiful,” she said. She went on to say that she reads in Spanish as a tribute to her parents and ancestry. After the craft and reading, students reacted to Espaillat’s performance and lecture. Crystal Vitale, a fourth-year student, admitted that she wants to experiment with different forms and styles of poetry because of Espaillat’s advice and lecture.
Besides giving a free lecture and reading, the Poetin-Resident also worked with students in various writing and literature classes, including Professor Kate Northrop’s poetry workshop class on Wednesday night.
During the class, Espaillat had the poets play with different rhyme schemes and forms. She also dissected poems with the group of students and pointed out where the turns in the poems occurred.
“I thought it was very informative and it was good to have another voice in class,” said Dan D’Aprile, a student in Professor Northrop’s class. “[Espaillat] was very on the level and very accessible.”
Espaillat has several collections of poetry, including Rehearsing Absence, Where Horizons Go, Playing at Stillness, and others. Her work has also been published in Sparrow, Poetry, The Formalist, and other publications.
Last spring, Espaillat visited WCU to give a poetry reading, and she has attended the Poetry Conference several times, which is an event held every summer by the WCU Poetry Center.