This semester, the College has been fortunate enough to welcome back alumnus and Bard Professor of English Peter Filkins ’80 to campus; Filkins, an acclaimed poet, has been teaching his craft to a new generation of young Eph writers as a visiting professor of English. On Nov. 3, Filkins gave a public reading, highlighting poems from his new book, The View We’re Granted. The reading was prefaced by Cassandra Cleghorn, senior lecturer in English and American studies, who prepared the audience for “poem upon poem,” and for Filkins to “teach in subtle ways about the world, about his mind.” In his newest collection of 26 poems, part of what Cleghorn describes as an “expansive and ever-growing body of work,” there is endless insight into both the natural world and the world of Filkins’ life.
Filkins’ lifelong foray into poetry was initially inspired by a Dylan Thomas poem, from which he said he “[hasn’t] recovered yet.” Thomas influence is just one example of the many external concepts that thread their way into Filkins’ work. Filkins admited to an obsession with where his poems come from, finding inspiration from sunflowers, a broken piano or a bill from some tree-cutters.
Through his poetry, Filkins revealed another fascination – that of the “struggle between making and unmaking.” He described poetry as “posing making against the unmaking of history.” As a translator, the act of unmaking one language and remaking into another has deeply influenced his work. He said he believes that 25 years of translating German has given him a different variation on traditional English, lending his writing a tone of “conversational musicality.” This quality is revealed especially in his descriptions of nature, such as his “stone wall spilling boulders like coins” or the “plastic tubing stretched like life support” in the poem “Stand of Maple.” Filkins said, “I’ve lived in meaningful landscapes all my life. I always want to know where I am in a poem.”
One challenge that Filkins described was that of of making a successful poem from an experience of Sept. 11, 2001, an event that infinitely unmade so much of the security and stability in the lives of every American. Having assigned his students the task earlier, he consented to sharing some of his own efforts at writing about the event. In one attempt to tackle it, Filkins describes the day after the attacks, and the queer normalcy of watching his children play soccer.
Filkins’ intensely personal relationship with the events of Sept. 11 is just one of the intimacies he shares in his newest poems. In his poem “Rocky,” he compares the death of a childhood friend to a pitch in a boyish game of baseball, saying, “I never saw it coming.” Several of his poems are about his sister, who passed away. One such poem is influenced by William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey,” one of the most famous pieces about brother-sister relationships. While he called his attempt “risky and audacious and probably kind of stupid,” the outcome, the poem titled, “Marking Time” is lovely, painting a haunting image of someone we have lost from our lives with “benign snowfall” and inky shadows.
In the third section of The View We’re Granted, Filkins focuses largely on the concept of making. He explores this theme with his poem about quilts – born out of the process of taking apart old clothing or curtains and turning them into something entirely new. Filkins describes the “cyclipated movements of color and time,” the “dignity spawned from … cloth scraps” and the “alchemy of time and deft labor” involved in the production of these quilts, which he finds “indelible as stars.” Similarly delicious phrases are to be found in his poem, “Waterfall, Rock, Trout,” which is characterized by the same graceful language, using phrases such as the “subsurface sinewy swirls” and the “pull of phantom gravity.”
Though Filkins admited that his teaching competes with his writing, he said he is sincerely passionate about helping students and engaging in the process by which they make something from nothing. His undeniable talent is a gift to this school, and those fortunate enough to have learned from him before he returns to Bard are the most rewarded.