Rosemary Gould on Poetry as Painting of the Mind

[As part of our celebration of National Poetry Month, we bring you an interview with Toronto Pursuits leader Rosemary Gould. In her seminar Imaginary Gardens: The Nature Poetry of Hopkins, Moore & Frost Rosemary and participants will consider three poets who wrote about nature as a projection of their own minds, but who took that shared impulse in completely different directions.]

Tell us about about yourself and how you became involved in Classical Pursuits.

Rosemary Gould

I grew up in a suburb of Chicago. I was fortunate enough to go to school in the ’70s in a very open-minded school district where they tried out different teaching methods. One of the experiments they tried was bringing in parents who were trained in the method of Shared Inquiry by the Great Books Foundation. My mother was one of those people. She led my class in discussions of Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” and other classic short stories. It’s the most vivid memory of enjoying learning that I have from those years, and it made a lasting impression on me. Later, when I became a college instructor, I made more use of that model of teaching than any I saw in college because it was obviously so much more engaging for students.

I heard about Classical Pursuits from Nancy Carr, who recommended me to [Classical Pursuits founder] Ann [Kirkland] about 10 years ago. Nancy and I were close friends and students together in the University of Virginia’s English lit doctoral program in the ’90s. Before that, I went to Dartmouth and majored in English and creative writing, and then went to Johns Hopkins and got a masters from the Writing Seminars. I wanted to be a poet during those years, thinking of it as a career. It isn’t a career, though. I have a husband and three kids, and I live in Charlottesville, Virginia. I work in communications, writing newsletters and that sort of thing.

Have you always been drawn to poetry? What role has it played in your life?

I started writing poetry when I was a kid, but didn’t enjoy reading it until high school. Then Robert Frost was one of the first poets whose work I really loved, along with Sylvia Plath, W. B. Yeats, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. I liked very unhappy poetry at that age!

Poetry has influenced my life in all kinds of ways, but I think the most important is that original one that a lot of us have in adolescence when poetry opens up different kinds of emotional experiences. Poetry helps you experience the dignity and even the joy of suffering, if that makes sense. Of course, a good love song, full of unrequited longing, can do the same thing.

Countless poets have written about nature. Why these three for Imaginary Gardens?

Falcon flying, one of the subjects of a poem by Hopkins
Tony Hisgett on Wikimedia Commons

Because of our theme this year of exploring what it means to know, I wanted to choose poets that wrote about nature very intentionally as projections of their own minds. I could have chosen others, too, since this is such a common theme from the earliest days of European literature, but I thought these poets might be interesting studied together. I always try to put together surprising combinations of writers because the minute I think of them in relation to each other, all kinds of wonderful insights crop up. It’s as if each casts a new light on the others. Hopkins is so devotional and ecstatic in his approach, whereas Frost often seems hostile to his own experiences. They’re polar opposites. Moore offers a deliberately convoluted approach so that you’re forced to move beyond the concepts of self and other and love and hate. Once you grapple with Moore, you can find complexity anywhere. The subtle undercurrents in the other two will become more apparent. I think they will all be fascinating in this context, especially Frost and Hopkins, whose great works people may think they already know well. Don’t be too sure! These two can always surprise you.

In your seminar description, you say that “communication of knowledge [of our own experiences] may even be something poetry can do in a way no other art can.” What is unique about poetry?

The great thing about most of the arts is the way they communicate in some other language: music, painting, sculpture, dance. People think in the language they speak most of the time, so it’s great to be spoken to in a nonverbal language. It engages other parts of our minds, but that can require quite a bit of work from us. Fiction, on the other hand, speaks in the same language people speak, telling us stories the same way we might tell one another about our lives. Fiction comes naturally to us, I think. Poetry does this strange thing of using the language we speak to make music and images like paintings in our minds. It’s a kind of hybrid between the nonverbal arts and speech and storytelling. So I think of it as a messenger that moves between the parts of the mind that are structured by the language we speak, with its shared meanings, logic, and material uses, and the nonverbal parts that experience things in ways we have trouble expressing.

What is a poem you come back to again and again?

The Arundel Tomb at Chichester Cathedral
PeterSymonds on Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Philip Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb.” It’s a very musical, densely layered, imagistic poem, yet it manages to convey powerful ideas as well. I hope you enjoy it.

For more information about Rosemary’s seminar, we invite you to read her blog post The Beauty of What We Don’t Know and see her seminar page on our website. We hope you will join her in exploring the natural world through these poets.


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