Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare! (April 23, 1564)

23 Apr

33-01-09/ 8Because Shakespeare.

New This Fall: Women Mystery Writers!

8 Apr

ENG/WGS 337: Women Mystery Writers
Instructor:  Jacqueline Zeff
W: 4-6:45 p.m.

Women have had a complicated relationship with detectives and detective fiction, depicted frequently as victims or femme fatales.  But not in their own tales of murder and mayhem. While “horsing around,” women writers of crime fiction dominate the best-seller lists and expand this most popular form of fiction reading, transforming and destabilizing the traditional male detective and enriching our discussion of social issues such as female independence, gender and crime, racial justice, power and the amateur, and environmental activism.  Three short papers, a midterm, final take-home exam, and an original five-minute mystery.

“It’s fun to horse around with danger.”—Sue Grafton

Baker Street Calling . . . Again!

8 Apr

Holmes Lecture

Happy Birthday, John Updike! (March 18, 1932)

18 Mar


Born in rural Pennsylvania, and spending most of his life in semi-rural eastern settings, Updike originally hoped to become a cartoonist, edited the Harvard Lampoon, then worked for The New Yorker, but became one of the greatest and most prolific interpreters in fiction of the experience of ordinary, middle-class American men. His “Rabbit” Angstrom series of novels (1960-90) traces the life of a one-time high school basketball star from early adulthood to death over three decades and are probably his greatest achievement, chronicling American life and concerns over that time.

Couples (1968), set in the early 1960s, examined what Time magazine called “The Adulterous Society,” as traditional American values butted up against post-World War Two affluence. The Witches of Eastwick (1984) controversially linked women’s liberation and the supernatural in a satirical novel eventually made into a movie starring Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, Cher–and Jack Nicholson as the Devil.

Outstanding among American novelists of his time, Updike won every major and minor American literary award. He was notable for his beautifully written prose and his lifelong religious faith.  (post by Fred Svoboda)

Happy Birthday, Charles Dickens! (February 7, 1812)

7 Feb

Dickens at Work 2 dreaming










Today is the 212th birthday of Charles Dickens, novelist extraordinaire.  Dickens wrote 14 novels between 1836 and 1865, in the process becoming one of the most famous writers in the world.  His novels have never been out of print, his name has been transformed into an adjective for describing complex, multi-layered narratives, and he had more than a little to do with the modern conception of Christmas.  If all you know about Dickens is that he invented Ebenezer Scrooge, here’s a bit more.

  • Despite his reputation for happy endings, Dickens’ novels can hold their own against anybody’s for psychological darkness.
  • Dickens was fascinated by altered states of consciousness and learned how to hypnotize his friends.
  • His novel David Copperfield was Sigmund Freud’s favorite, provides the stage name for a popular illusionist, and contains a character, Uriah Heep, who is the source of the name for a British band of the late-sixties.
  • Henrik Ibsen’s famous play A Doll’s House takes its title from words used by a character in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend.  Speaking about her marriage, Bella Wilfer says “I want to be something so much worthier than the doll in the doll’s house.”
  • Our Mutual Friend also contains dialogue that provided an early working title for T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”: “He do the Police in different voices.”

Charles Dickens – he’s in the middle of everything!

Karen Davis Receives Sterling Staff Award!

5 Dec

Sterling ribbonEnglish Department Administrative Assistant and CAS Staff Coordinator Karen Davis has been recognized for her excellent work with a Sterling Staff Award.  As Karen’s anonymous nominator wrote, “Karen works tirelessly to make CAS a better place to be. She has such institutional knowledge and is the ‘go-to’ person for answers for questions. I admire Karen’s professionalism, her ethics, and her efforts on behalf of the CAS personnel.”  We in English heartily agree.  There’s much, much more to what Karen does, always drawing on her energy, her wisdom, and her dedication.  Congratulations, Karen!


Congratulations to Maize & Blue recipient, David Linden!

19 Nov

The Department of English is proud to announce that David M. Linden has been named a Maize and Blue Distinguished Scholar.  Dave, who is graduating with a BA in English with a Specialization in Writing, has been demonstrating academic excellence at UMFlint in every semester he has been enrolled since 1997. Dave is also an empathetic leader who has committed to using his talents and education to serve others. Faculty, students, and community members know Dave to be smart, talented, hardworking, high-achieving, thoughtful, kind, humble, and giving. Inside and outside the classroom, Dave has been a leader and best committed to the betterment of self and to the service of others. Dave Linden is well deserving of the university’s most prestigious honor.

Congratulations to all of the Maize and Blue recipients!

Baker Street Calling!

12 Nov

Sherlock Holmes Adult Flier


18 Sep

robert-haydenNOVEMBER 1, 2013
The Department of English at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor has announced plans for a one-day conference on November 1, 2013 in honor of Robert Hayden, the distinguished poet and educator who received an M.A. degree from the University of Michigan in 1944 and returned to teach at the university in 1970 as Professor of English until his death in 1980.

Hayden has emerged as a major figure in American literary history. He is the leader, along with Gwendolyn Brooks, of the generation of African American poets that emerged in the 1940s to achieve widespread critical attention and a massive presence in anthologies and textbooks. He served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (the position now known as Poet Laureate of the United States) from 1976-1978. The U.S. Post Office issued a postage stamp in 2012 to honor his achievement.

The keynote address of the conference, to be held in the Rackham Amphitheater, will be delivered by Harryette Mullen, Professor of English and Creative Writing at UCLA, a Guggenheim Fellow (among other honors), and a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her volume of essays and interviews, The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be, appeared in 2012.

Professor Mullen will be introduced by A. Van Jordan of the U-M faculty. A panel discussion in early afternoon will include Mullen, Linda Gregerson (of the U-M faculty), Lawrence Joseph, a Detroit native and the preeminent Arab-American poet of our time, and Frederick Glaysher, editor of Hayden’s Collected Poems and Collected Prose. Robert Hayden is a character in Glaysher’s recently published epic poem, The Parliament of Poets. Laurence Goldstein, Professor of English and co-editor (with Robert Chrisman) of Robert Hayden: Essays on the Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 2001), will serve as panel moderator.

In late afternoon, MFA students will read from and speak about Hayden’s poems, along with other participants in the conference.

November 1 Timetable:
10 a.m. Keynote address by Harryette Mullen
12-1:30 p.m. Lunch at various restaurants around campus
1:30-3:00 p.m. Panel discussion
3:00-5:00 p.m. Readings and remarks by audience members

“…utterly a source”: Seamus Heaney, 1939 – 2013

3 Sep

So there we were, a couple of farm kids (him for real, me simply surrounded by farmlands and a one-time professional hay baler) having a giggle over being the only two males in the Harvard Faculty Club at lunchtime not in blue blazers, watching the parade of what appeared to be an endless line of Episcopalian ministers. He was in a rumpled almost white suit and a check shirt. I had, fortuitously, decided at the last moment on a tan corduroy jacket in preference to my own blue blazer. We were both wondering aloud what on earth had happened that we were in such a place where we clearly didn’t belong. Except that he did. He was Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, a position first held by John Quincy Adams, and future Nobel laureate. I wasn’t. On the other hand, I was his guest. So we amused ourselves by watching the succession of navy blazers above gray slacks—with a single exception of khakis worn, no doubt, by the campus rebel—and comparing notes about growing up in the country. That was the beginning of my day with Seamus Heaney.

I was in Cambridge to interview him for what I hoped would be the fourth book on him, although it turned out to be the fifth. It’s exciting to be in on the first wave of studies of an emerging artist; at that point, almost anything you say will be original, and the earlier works are guaranteed to not cover the newest works by the subject. We concluded lunch, strolled campus for a bit on a beautiful May afternoon in 1987, and retreated to his digs in Adams House, an on-campus residence for new or part-year faculty. I peppered him with a series of obvious and sometimes insipid questions, which he bore patiently and to which he gave back answers so smart as to make them seem almost intelligent. Then, the interview concluded, he announced that he needed a shower before he could face supper, and he handed me a book—his not-yet-released The Haw Lantern, which would hit bookstores, or at least a few of them, the following week.  I have no idea how long he was gone. Somewhere between ten minutes and two hours, although I suspect nearer the low end. I can’t say for sure, though, because during that time I vanished into the book, devoured by and consuming something new and astonishing.  I had had that experience before with his 1975 volume, North, which is about the Troubles in Northern Ireland (those almost thirty years of violence and mayhem between Unionist and Nationalist forces beginning in 1969), Vikings, Early Iron Age people buried in bogs, Anglo-Saxon half-line verse, and words no one else uses. I know it’s poetry if the top of Emily Dickinson’s head blows off, and this stuff had that effect. But those poems, with all their history and politics and verbal archeology, require some real work on the part of the reader, work bordering on struggle. This new volume came easier, asked less, if only a little, of us. It was more personal, warmer, more approachable. Soon enough, the great man returned, bathed and dressed, and we went on the prowl for steak. For the next six days, I walked around with the delightful fantasy that I was the world’s foremost authority on Seamus Heaney.

The poem that had the most profound effect on me that afternoon, as I suspect it has on every reader, was “Clearances,” an eight-sonnet cycle on the death of his mother. It can blow the top of everyone’s head off.  He imagines her sudden arrival at the celestial version of her parents’ house, catching them unawares. He recalls his closeness with her, but also the tensions necessarily present in what he terms “our Sons and Lovers phase.” In another sonnet, he describes folding sheets with her, the paradoxical way that partners in that dance come together by pulling away from one another, “just touch and go, / Coming close by holding back / In moves where I was x and she was o / Inscribed on sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.” I made a comment about how the sense memory of the poem reminded me of his earlier “Churning Day,” from his first volume. Ah, he said (I’m paraphrasing here), but that one is about textures, where this one is about lines of force. In that instant I understood what I lacked that poets have to have.  And he writes in the final sonnet of a chestnut tree planted by a maiden aunt who lived with the family to commemorate his birth, a tree cut down by subsequent owners of the farm, and of what absence feels like, of “walking round and round a space / Utterly empty, utterly a source.”

We returned to mundane matters, to food and drink and literary gossip. We drank some highly aged Jameson whisky, stuff one couldn’t buy in this country, that fellow poet Michael Longley had brought him at St. Patrick’s Day. We strolled some more. He couldn’t walk a block without someone hailing him. I bought all the poetry books I thought my suitcase could handle at the Grolier Bookshop on Plympton Street. He recommended a Spanish restaurant just off Harvard Square, chiefly because they served actual potatoes, “real spuds,” he said. If you keep the vowel sound you believe lies within “spuds” and mix it with the one in “books,” you can come close to the way he pronounced it, but let’s face it, neither you nor I can ever match exactly the value of a short “u” for those born in County Derry. As it turned out, while they did indeed have real spuds and excellent beef, their chief item of fare was garlic, which was present in every item, and I’m not sure I’m excepting the wine in the charge. After dinner, he begged me to have a cigar: he had recently given up smoking but longed for the smell of tobacco to round off the meal. I had to decline, which has always troubled me a little, but he got over the craving soon enough. When we parted that evening, I did my best not to become abject in my gratitude, which would have embarrassed him, for he was notably modest in person. I wrote to thank him, but we never met again. I often thought to write at his birthday, just a week before mine; perhaps I could have remembered in time had the two dates been reversed. I did see him at a distance a number of years later in Ann Arbor, but I was part of a crowd in Rackham Auditorium that was giving the Fire Marshall the vapors, and he was being pulled along by his university chaperones. Our eyes met momentarily and he nodded and smiled, as did I. I had the sense that the mental rolodex was spinning, but even I don’t have enough vanity to think he recognized me. More probably, he knew he had seen such a person once, somewhere, if only . . .

What sticks with me most after all this time is that he didn’t need to do all this for me. After all, he was already Famous Seamus, the envy of every other young Irish poet, capable of commanding five-figure speaking fees when the rest were hoping for travel fare, while I was nobody from nowhere. I didn’t even have a permanent academic appointment, although that would change that autumn, when I would join the faculty of the Harvard of Genesee County. But aside from being a great poet, Seamus was famous for his kindness and generosity. He helped scores of younger poets as they made their own way. He ran a regular meeting of young poets in Belfast, taking it over from Philip Hobsbaum, who had begun it when Heaney himself was just starting out. Some of those poets he assisted, people like Frank Ormsby and Michael Foley and Paul Muldoon, went on to become notable in their own right.


Seamus Heaney’s attic office, now silent, Dublin
Photo: Eamonn McCabe, courtesy of The Guardian

Heaney was a great elegist, writing memorial poems about the famous (Robert Lowell, conductor Sean O’Riada) and the unknown (Louis O’Neill, an eel fisherman of his acquaintance who was blown up in an IRA reprisal after Bloody Sunday in 1972). I don’t know if he will find his own elegist, a poet to do for him what W. H. Auden did for William Butler Yeats, or indeed, what he did for Lowell.  I hope he does. In any case, I suppose it doesn’t really matter; he lives in his poetry, “The words of the dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living,” as Auden said of Yeats. On Friday, 30 August 2013, again quoting Auden, “he became his admirers.”  But then, it was always becoming to admire Seamus Heaney. Just now, I’m performing my own mental shuffle around and around a hole in the world, where someone, like his coeval chestnut tree,  whose “heft and hush” have “become a bright nowhere, / A soul ramifying and forever / Silent, beyond silence listened for.”

-Tom Foster