Taking on the Canon

A new student prize honors a Mawrter and the power of formal poetry.

Poets Moira Egan ’84 and Susan de Sola Rodstein Derks ’84
Poets Moira Egan ’84 and Susan de Sola Rodstein Derks ’84
Poets Moira Egan ’84 and Susan de Sola Rodstein Derks ’84

The Susan de Sola Rodstein Derks Prize in Formal Poetry was established in memory of poet Susan de Sola Rodstein Derks ’84 with gifts from her family, classmates, and friends.

BMC junior Leela R. Smelser ’24 was awarded the first annual Susan de Sola Rodstein Derks Prize in Formal Poetry for “the best portfolio of poems that gracefully utilize poetic form, whether traditional (sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, etc.) or new and invented forms.”

Of the winning work excerpted below, contest judge Moira Egan ’84 comments, “This portfolio beautifully embodies Adrienne Rich’s old saying that form was ‘part of the strategy— like asbestos gloves, it allowed me to handle materials I couldn’t pick up barehanded.’ In contrapuntals, prose poems, ekphrasis, and a villanelle, the poet explores and explodes gods and monsters, myths and psychic mayhem, black and red, tooth and claw; with great sophistication, each form synergistically conveys the content, the meaning of the poem. Fierce, vivid imagery and powerful sonic patterns (‘a crackling hellfire at the bottom of a ravine, the wind singing as it flows between the walls’) speak to the reader’s viscera. Nothing is simplistic, but there is a clear sense, if not of salvation, then, at least, of hard-won wisdom: ‘the draw of sleep is heavy and sweet as / darkness falls layer by layer like organza.’

Revelation (Villanelle)

Take your grief to the beast.
Carry with you whatever lie you must tell yourself, your justification.
Offer it up, witness his feast.

The ones you love are already deceased,
and you, wallowing in the dregs of your deprivation,
take your grief to the beast.

Old wood cold against your knees, hands that shake from pieced
together tragedies – most of them of your own creation.
Offer it up, witness his feast.

Your sorrow, the libations, your pain, supplication – you’re his only priest.
He thanks you for the offering, bemoaning his insatiable starvation.
Take your grief to the beast.

It is a limited agony, mercy to come when you are released,
left with nothing but a hollow ache and newfound veneration.
Offer it up, witness his feast.

When you stagger away, sun rising in the east,
you accept the cost of salvation.
Take your grief to the beast.
Offer it up, witness his feast.

As inaugural student entrants polished their submissions this spring, contest judge Moira Egan ’84 and co-director of Creative Writing Airea D. Matthews met to discuss writing at Bryn Mawr and the radical power of formal poetry.

ELIZABETH MOSIER: What experience with form do students bring to your poetry courses?

DEE MATTHEWS: My students have some sense of poems needing certain containers, but they don’t necessarily recognize what the container is named. We often enter into poems with rhyme because rhyme feels decidedly poetic. Form opens up for students as they think about how it lets them say what they need to say with concision and clarity.

As humans, we’re constantly trying to reconcile the paradoxical relationship between form and fluidity. I try to show students how they can have agency and freedom inside a form. Knowing the form well enough to break it from within is an act of revolution. Breaking something without knowing it is just anarchy.

MOIRA EGAN: Yes, yes, yes! For me, as a poet and as a teacher, it’s fun and rewarding to not break a single rule and talk back to the canon in its language: “Darling canon, now I’m going to school you on a couple of things.” 

DM: Exactly. Using form shows range and the ability to code switch, to change registers between the contemporary and the canonical—to speak the canonical language and move poetry forward.

EM: What radical power does form liberate?

ME: Form is all the “F” words: freeing, flexible, fun. Form brings ferocity that free verse doesn’t. Form sets up expectations and constraints that push your imagination to places it might not go on its own.

DM: Music, particularly music composition, provides incredible forms. What would happen if you created a 12-tone scale with words? Form is a way to play, to challenge yourself. I want to create a contrapuntal mixed with a pantoum—though I don’t know what that is or what to call it. After I mentioned this in class last year, a student brought in a contrapuntal pantoum. Holy cow!

EM: What are the particular challenges of learning to read and write as a poet at an academic institution like Bryn Mawr?

ME: I love, and felt terrified by, Bryn Mawr’s intellectual rigor. It’s good to set high standards for yourself, but perfectionism can keep you from putting words on the page. Ask yourself what you want a poem or a manuscript to achieve—and don’t put on the editor hat too soon.

DM: It’s critically important for a poet to observe. I ask students what they observe in the work. Number the lines, pay attention to the enjambment, look at the structure, the rhythm, the story. Our discussion of a poem is based initially on what the writer is asking: Is what I do here effective? What can I do differently? Then during consideration, the readers give potential suggestions, what we call “considerations,” because the writer—or really, the poem—decides what it needs. In the creative classroom, this dialogic model gives students a stake in others’ work, and the breadth and depth of discussion about how the poem is constructed teaches them about their own work.

ME: One of the great poets of observation, Marianne Moore (Class of 1909) comes to mind. To have our Bryn Mawr sister as a model for what we do in the classroom feels nicely self-reflexive and useful.

EM: What role does reading poetry play in writing poetry?

ME: To be any kind of artist, you have to understand your origins, learn from them, and fight against them. What are you going to do with what has come before? That’s the exciting thing: incorporating and metabolizing those voices and infusing your work with those influences.

DM: If your neurons are firing, what’s the center? Who’s actively influencing you? For me, Robert Hayden—but I would not know that had I not read Robert Hayden. I’m part of a burgeoning school of poets called The Detroit School, and it’s important to trace this lineage.

Reading poetry, you find unexpected connections, too. What does a Black woman from Detroit have in common with Anne Sexton? I asked myself. When you read, you have a conversation with the writer, and in those conversations the creative impulse emerges and eventually gets you to the page. Just read. Read everything. Ask questions. That’s how you become a critical thinker, which helps the poetic impulse.