William & Mary

Writer-in-residence Cole extracts hope from poetic struggle


Henri Cole '78 is familiar with the deep places where poets struggle. Time and again, he has entered that solitude and brought forth the perfect metered words that flesh out disgust and delight forever tangled in transient existence.

In praise of Cole’s most recent volume, “Middle Earth,” Harold Bloom, the Yale-based luminary of the literary set, called works such as “Icarus Breathing” and “Olympia” the “poems of our climate.” Perhaps lines from the first—“I feel like a baby, bodiless and strange: a man is nothing if he is not changing. Father, is that you breathing?”—sketch out the landscape; perhaps lines from the second—“In the semidarkness of the mountain, small things loomed large: a donkey urinating on a palm; a salt-and-saliva-stained boy riding on his mother’s back; a shy roaming black Adam. I was walking on an edge”—juxtapose the promise and the pitfalls of one who dares seek hope.

And, by and large, Cole relishes hope—the erotic, wholesome, cerebral, scraggly hope of an artist who has stared down ghosts in mirrors and has given them form.

This semester, Cole, as writer-in-residence in the College’s English department, is sharing that hope with students. Perhaps it is the best he can give them. Although some of them—the best of them—are as talented as his best students at Harvard University or Smith College, he cannot make them all great, or even good, poets. He hopes to guide them toward their strengths through weekly assignments. “Constraint leads to power, like the genie in the bottle,” he said. He will insist that they learn to listen in order to discover “pleasure in sound; pleasure in truth.”

“You can’t teach talent, but if talent is there, you can nurture and guide it,” he said. “In teaching writing, I am really teaching reading. And reading helps us understand what it is to be human: fear, grief, triumph, wonder.” By the close of the semester, he hopes to leave behind “a handful of students who are better readers.”

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Tom Heacox, associate professor of English, said that Cole is a fitting choice for the writer-in-residence position at William and Mary. “Henri’s star is very much in ascendance these days,” he said, referring specifically to Cole’s winning the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award last year and being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Not only does Cole have a fine reputation as a teacher, he “is not eaten up by ego,” Heacox said.

As Heacox has followed Cole’s writings in the “New Yorker” and through his five collections of verse, he repeatedly has been struck by the author’s attention to his art.

“What I like, in addition to the fact that he writes, as you say, ‘edgy things,’ is that he’s a real formalist, and that’s something that I respect,” Heacox said. “He’s always attending to matters of meter and structure and sound and rhythm—form, in short. And I respect that more than poets who are trying just to get emotions down on paper.”

As he settles back at the College, Cole feels “a little like a person from the past visiting the present. So far, it is a pleasant feeling.” He reflects that as an undergraduate, he was “a very callow young man,” who would not “really become” himself until years later, but, even then, he would write. “Poetry backed into my life as a result of classes I took at William and Mary,” he explained. “I was extremely shy, and putting pen to paper was a way to be sociable.”

Today he is recognized as one of the most compelling poets of his time—“the fact that he is one of the very few poets of his generation to be included in the new ‘Norton Antholoogy of Contemporary Poetry’ shows how illustrious he is becoming,” said Heacox. But Cole keeps a distance from his success. “Being a poet means being highly impractical about worldly concerns in order to assemble words into art,” he speculates. It is a struggle. “On a very rare occasion, a poem will come out of the air, like a gift from a magic fountain pen, but mostly it is hard work in solitude,” he said. He calls the attendant accolades the “golden garbage that piles up in life.”

“To create something that is exactly as I conceived it—that is success,” he said. “And I believe our highest vocation as humans is love—to love and be loved back, that is success. The impulse to create is a validation of something deeply human.”