To echo a Yeats line, the best are full of passionate intensity.
And many of the best poets in the land will gather this week, Wednesday through Saturday, intense and full of passion, for the 16th annual West Chester University Poetry Conference. Other festivals, such as the Geraldine R. Dodge, are larger, but they are readings. West Chester is all about the art and craft of writing.
Under the loving management of its cofounders - WCU professor of English Michael Peich and poet and former National Endowment for the Arts head Dana Gioia - the conference has grown into one of the biggest and most prominent such gatherings in the country.
It was born in 1994, when Peich was visiting the home of Gioia's mother in Sebastopol, Calif.
"We're were sitting there, drinking some excellent wine," Peich says, "and Dana and I started talking: 'Where would somebody go if they wanted to work on craft? Prosody? Narrative?' Before long, we were saying, 'We have the stuff of a conference here.' "
The first year, 1995, there were "six or eight workshops, about 85 people," Peich says. Gioia invited eminent poet Richard Wilbur to be the keynote speaker - and Wilbur shifted his busy schedule and showed up. Teachers and attendees alike begged Gioia and Peich to keep it going.
Gioia says, "This wasn't an easy thing to sustain. It was precarious for its first decade, and had Mike or I been less resolute, it might not exist today." But it is now well established. At its peak, Peich says, "the conference has averaged about 300 people a year."
Among the dozens of major poetry conferences nationwide, what makes West Chester different? Rhina Espaillat, this year's keynote poet, says, "It reestablishes the importance of formal considerations, imagery, content. It's also very good on what you're writing about. It focuses on the what as well as the how."
Peich says "it's the only conference that concentrates on traditional craft. Ours talks about traditional prosody, storytelling, form, every hour of every day."
"What we are proudest of having achieved," says Gioia, "is not merely survival and growth but also the consistency, independence, and quality of the conference. The quality of our students is astonishing. In one of my classes, 11 of the 12 students had published a book."
The poetry world, in the words of Dan Hoffman, poet, Swarthmore resident, and faithful conference attendee, is "a continuing Balkans War," with devotees of this or that method, tradition, approach, or genre dug in against all others. In some foxholes, traditional forms and rhyme get scarce welcome. In others, it's not cool to write in your own personal voice. Or to have a theme. In still others, content is suspicious. The WCU conference has embraced the traditional, and Peich believes it has "helped change the conversation about poetry, helped open people's eyes and get them to take form more seriously."
Poet and editor Alfred Nicol, who will lead a WCU panel on Espaillat's work, says, "She began as a bit of a prodigy, but then didn't write for a couple of decades and set aside poetry to raise her children. She writes in the forms the great masters used, but she makes it new." He mentions her poem "Workshop," in which Espaillat says to an old mentor, "I've been putting a life together, like / supper, like a poem, with what I have."
"She's doing something quiet but radical there," Nicol says, "saying she makes poems as she makes supper, with the materials available."
Asked why he keeps coming back, Hoffman, a 1973 U.S. poet laureate, stresses camaraderie. "Poets come from all over to be there," he says, "established poets and especially young people in the process of becoming good poets. The established poets are so generous, and it's so exciting to be around the younger ones. The informal conversation around the dinner table or over a beer is stimulating. There's so many good seminars, you want to go to them all, but there just isn't enough time."
Sister Anne Higgins, a member of the Daughters of Charity living in Emmitsburg, Md., is West Chester-born and has attended the conference six times since 2002. "I go because it's a very unaffected, welcoming group," she says. "People from all different levels of writing work together closely and comfortably."
She also goes for the wisdom of teachers: "I've had a lot of good advice and mentoring in the workshops, and I know it has really helped my poetry." Her workshop leader is Mark Jarman. "This will be my third time with him," Higgins says. "He's so helpful to me." Higgins has had four poetry books published, with a fifth in progress.
The conference also hosts a music-and-poetry night. This year, the featured performer is singer Natalie Merchant. For her new album, Leave Your Sleep, she has set poems by Ogden Nash, e.e. cummings, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and others to music. Four years in the making, Leave Your Sleep forges a natural link between older poetry and her contemporary songs. She will perform (registered attendees only) Saturday night at 8 p.m.
This is the last conference headed by Peich, retiring after 42 years in West Chester's English department. His replacement, Kim Bridgford, a poet and professor at Fairfield University, says she looks forward to beginning in August: "It's a dream come true - but only because Michael Peich made it come true, inviting the best, creating the best, reaching always for excellence." Bridgford will lead a seminar at the conference about the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project, begun last year, which she says "will eventually be the largest database of women poets in the world."
Says Gioia, "Mike has built the largest all-poetry writing conference in the country, established a poetry center, and brought a serious literary press and a range of literary prizes to West Chester. Thanks to Mike, the university has become one of the most important poetry centers in the United States."
West Chester University Poetry Conference, West Chester.
Registration still open for some seminars. Information: http://go.philly.com/wcupoetry, 610-436-3235.
Free public events:
Rhina Espaillat, keynote address, Wednesday at 8:15 p.m.
"Faculty readings" by conference poet-teachers, Thursday at 8:15 p.m. and Saturday at 8:30 p.m.
All events held in the Adler Theater of Swope Music Building, West Chester University.