Visiting poet Elizabeth Willis reads from works

Rachel Young

Lawrence University was fortunate to have poet Elizabeth Willis on campus Monday, May 11 and Tuesday, May 12. Willis was at Lawrence to give a reading of poems from her various works and to lead a discussion about the poetry of Lorine Niedecker. The poet, who was born in Bahrain but educated in the United States, has won several awards for her work and has written four books of poetry: “Second Law,” “The Human Abstract,” “Turneresque,” and her most recent, “Meteoric Flowers.” She has also edited a collection of essays on poet Lorine Niedecker, a poet in whom she takes particular interest.
Willis received a bachelor’s degree from UW-Eau Claire and earned her doctorate in poetics at SUNY-Buffalo. She has taught at several colleges, including Brown University, and she is currently a faculty member at Wesleyan University.
Willis considers herself to be primarily a lyric poet, which means that in writing she focuses primarily on the sound of the poem. She also writes prose poetry, though she never completely disregards lyric form. Her collection “Meteoric Flowers” contains prose poems that can be broken down into blocks of lyric.
For those not familiar with Willis’ works, Assistant Professor of English Faith Barrett, who teaches Willis’ works in her poetry classes, gave an informative introduction to the reading. Barrett included a brief overview of each of Willis’ poetry books.
When Willis came to the microphone after Barrett’s introduction, she first asked the audience, “How y’all doin’?” I did not expect this phrase from a woman educated in the Midwest, but as I would find out from her poetry, Willis draws from a broad variety of inspirations, not simply local experiences.
Willis graciously thanked the audience for coming, saying she knew that around “this time of year, things on campus can get a little hectic.” After hearing her impressive list of credentials, her down to earth and comfortable manner were refreshing.
Willis began reading from her book “The Human Abstract” saying, “[It’s] so nice out today I had to start with a spring poem.” Willis’ voice was clear and musical without being overpowering, a quality that only enhanced the beauty and eloquence of her poetry.
Her next poem, also from “The Human Abstract,” was titled “Autographeme,” a title which Willis said she made up to combine the words “autobiography” or “autography” and “grapheme.” For those unfamiliar with the term, a grapheme is the smallest unit of written language that can be considered as such. This poem described the experience of being young and understanding what language means.
After a few more poems from “The Human Abstract,” Willis began to read from her book “Turneresque,” saying that many of the poems included in this book were translations of visual works, such as paintings.
One particularly striking line was, “It wouldn’t take much amber to blue up the sky,” a beautiful reference to a particular painting of a seascape that moved Willis.
Although Willis’ poetry doesn’t rhyme, rhythm and tone are obviously crucial parts of her writing process. Nature is also a central theme in much of her poetry, and her book “Meteoric Flowers,” which is a response to the scientific poetry of Erasmus Darwin, explores this theme more deeply.
Willis said that she wanted to respond to Darwin and yet be critical of the pastoral style of the times as well.
From listening to her poetry, it is evident that Willis is a deeply observant and intelligent poet who draws on life experiences and incorporates not only nature but also emotion, sensation and humanity into many of her poems. Lawrence is lucky to have had Willis as a guest and to have experienced the musical, profound beauty of her poetry.