It is no accident that language—and cadence—plays a central role in Henri Cole’s poems. His mother was Armenian, his father a Southerner from Virginia. Cole grew up speaking French, Armenian, and English, an experience, he says, that “made me see language as a prism, instead of a transparent window.” He began writing poems as a teenager. “I was a shy young man, but when I put pen to paper, I had things to say,” he says. “I was sociable.”
Now 55, Cole is one of his generation’s most accomplished poets. The author of seven collections of poetry and the current poetry editor of The New Republic, he describes himself as an autobiographical poet. Many of his poems focus on his parents and his childhood; others offer glimpses into his romantic longings and relationships. “Memory,” says Cole, “holds the key to everything.”
Cole will read from his most recent collection, Touch (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011), tonight as the featured speaker at the Robert Lowell Memorial Lecture. The semiannual event honors American poet Robert Lowell, who taught at BU in the 1950s. Among Lowell’s famous students were Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.
“Fresh imagination, bold truthfulness about feeling—economy—Henri Cole’s poems have these qualities, so striking that they make a lot of the movies, music, and other stuff of our culture look dull and plodding by comparison,” says Robert Pinsky, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English and three-time U.S. poet laureate. “Cole himself likens his poems to “eggs and bacon with black coffee on the side” and cites nature and visual art as frequent sources of inspiration. But sleeping and reading, he says, have been the two biggest influences on his work: “Reading makes me want to write; sleep gives me the concentration to do so.”
Cole, who supported himself with a string of entry-level jobs early in his career, has received numerous honors. His volume Middle Earth was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2003. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Lenore Marshall Award. The Boston-based poet teaches at Ohio State University, a job he finds deeply rewarding. “Young people keep me human,” he says. “I love watching them discover their voices.”
The Lowell Lecture series pairs a distinguished poet with a recent graduate of BU’s Creative Writing Program. Appearing with Cole at tonight’s reading is Sara Peters (GRS’08), a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, whose work has appeared in numerous publications. Peters says she in in awe of Cole’s work and admits to feeling “absolute honor and absolute terror,” about reading tonight. “I’m petrified of being boring, so I’ll try to choose short poems with exciting plot twists.” She says she’s often inspired by “secrets, abuse, betrayal, guilt, embarrassment, shame, pretense, hyperbole, sarcasm, empathy, lying, and violence” in her writing.
The Robert Lowell Memorial Lecture is tonight, Wednesday, September 14, at 7:30 p.m. at The Castle, 225 Bay State Road. The event is free and open to the public. A book signing and reception immediately follow.
The Robert Lowell Memorial Lectures are funded by Nancy Livingston (COM’69) and her husband, Fred M. Levin, through the Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.