Harrison Enchants Audience with Poetic Perspective on Liberal Arts
Assistant Professor of English DeSales Harrison delighted parents and students alike this past Saturday, Nov. 12, with his reading of Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West.” The presentation, one of the many special events planned for Parents’ Weekend, was designed to highlight the importance of poetry in a liberal arts setting.
Harrison’s lecture sought to uncover why the humanities, despite being — as he noted with a smirk — “opaque, meaningless, difficult and without practical applications in the world,” are central to an understanding of the self.
“The question that we must always ask is ‘Who’s speaking?’” Harrison said. “This question — who we are — is the question to which the entirety of the humanities dedicates itself.”
Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” investigates, among other things, the role of language in our lives and the way we interpret the world around us and give it meaning. The poem, Harrison explained, is a testament to the necessity of the humanities: only through language can we attribute meaning to our own lives and communicate such meaning to other individuals.
“There is no world aside from that which we make for ourselves — through singing, through language, through all forms of communication with others,” Harrison said. “Each one of us is the single artificer of our world — but our minds are separate. And so we live in language.”
Though Stevens’ carefully crafted verse enchanted the audience, it was Harrison’s erudition and wit that took center stage as he unearthed the meaning behind the modernist poem. Harrison’s meticulous analysis was punctuated by numerous quotations from other works, a brief look at the etymology of the word ‘poem’ (from the Greek poesis, to make) and a series of humorous anecdotes about Stevens’ career as a bond lawyer.
One of the salient images in Stevens’ poem is the ocean, and Harrison devoted much of his analysis to defining the role that water plays in modernist poetry. Citing Stevens, as well as Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Frost, Harrison described the portrayal of the ocean as a body of deep knowledge that is both immense and constantly changing. The land, Harrison said, symbolizes the realm of knowledge that is concrete, while the realm of knowledge represented by water is intangible. These two realms mark the essential distinction between the sciences and the humanities.
“As we approach the shore of knowledge we can know, we constantly rub up against that which we can’t know; these things are the humanities,” Harrison said. “Stevens is so interested in why poetry is special — being a bond lawyer fills our needs — but Stevens is constantly meditating on what it means to be something more, to reach into that region or realm we cannot occupy.”
In an era where science-related jobs seem to be providing endless opportunities for college graduates, Harrison’s reading proved to be a refreshing reminder of the power of language. In his closing statements, Harrison directly addressed the parents in the audience, asking them not to dismiss a humanities-based education.
“If you’ve ever wondered, ‘Why am I spending $160,000 for you to get a degree in English?’ Stevens is trying to address the issue. ‘What are you going to do with that?’” Harrison said. “Our human destiny...is words.”