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Marianne Boruch – 2014 Purdue University Research and Scholarship Distinction Award
Poet Marianne Boruch is a Professor of English at Purdue University.
Marianne Boruch is a former Guggenheim Fellow, twice a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship awardee, recipient of Pushcart Prizes and residencies at Yaddo, MacDowell and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, she has published eight books of poems, including The Book of Hours, a Kingsley-Tufts Award winner. The most recent —Cadaver, Speak — she completed as the first Fulbright Professor at the University of Edinburgh and a Fellow of its Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities. Boruch was Artist-in-Residence at Isle Royale National Park, and has taught at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and in the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
At Purdue, she has been a Fellow in the Center for Artistic Endeavors in the College of Liberal Arts, and in 2013 received the College of Liberal Art’s Discovery Excellence Award for the Creative Arts.
In addition to poetry, she has written two collections of essays, and a memoir, The Glimpse Traveler. Her work appears in The New Yorker, Poetry, American Poetry Review, London Review of Books, The Nation and elsewhere. She has given more than 100 readings and lectures here and abroad.
Professor Boruch has worked with Purdue undergraduate and graduate students for 27 years, has been the major professor for 49 young poets writing their book-length MFA theses, and was a member of 38 other such committees.
Brought to campus in 1987 to develop the new graduate program in creative writing, she served as its director for nearly two decades. She has received departmental teaching awards as well as the Educational Excellence Award from the College of Liberal Arts.
Poems are built around surprise and the sometimes sudden resolve, a movement of mind poet Robert Hass calls “the shape of their understanding.” No formula — because poetry, fiction, perhaps even lectures grow out of a life, each odd and individual enough.
That said, this lecture takes up two rather dodgy, unlikely bedfellows, John Keats and Arthur Conan Doyle — plus a third, American poet William Carlos Williams — to consider what they do have in common: their medical training.
How such habits of attention, of diagnostic verve, of the body’s grief-in-the making mark Keats’ brilliant poems, Williams’ keen-eyed work and Conan Doyle’s invention of the lasting, wily Sherlock Holmes will be examined but never laid to rest, the famous scientific method notwithstanding.
Novelist Janet Burroway wrote that “only trouble is interesting,” and literature is notoriously concerned with where does it hurt? — and what’s gone awry. Poetry as therapy, to quick-fix and be loved for it, the nice dinner party: No. But to observe the hard details, to dissect and draw and scare oneself into discovery maybe, exactly: Yes.
Marianne Boruch believes what she tells her students: that poets must be passionate, serious readers of poetry, thinkers about it because every generation needs to re-examine this most mysterious genre. Her own research has been extensive and sometimes eccentric in that she has written essays that attempt to see literature in a fresh light, with a personal edge and eye and voice.
In writing about the poetry of others, she has followed closely its ancient, beloved elements — metaphor, lineation, sound, closure, syntax among them — often tapping the methods and imagery of areas as near or far removed as music, aviation, plumbing, the history of the atomic bomb, medicine, animal behavior, and studio art, working by analogy to rethink how poems work. For example, she has audited an ornithology course on campus, focusing on the nature of birdsong to aid and abet her essay on poetic sound.
And though reliant on more traditional forms of research such as working with the archival drafts behind a writer’s published work, Boruch once visited a bee colony, in borrowed moon suit and veil, to inform her understanding of Sylvia Plath’s imagery in her book Ariel. That experience at the Purdue hives in fact structures Boruch’s award winning essay, “Plath’s Bees.”
Her focus has been on Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Blake, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Theodore Roethke and others, including many lesser-known writers. Boruch has taken to heart researching the way Robert Frost advised: letting plain curiosity lead as images and ideas find her like “burrs on a pant leg” attach themselves when open pasture is crossed, a field gone beautiful and wild at the height of summer — before the maddening work of revision begins.
Previous to their life in her published collections —Poetry’s Old Air (Michigan, 1995) and In the Blue Pharmacy: Essays on Poetry and other Transformations (Trinity, 2005) — over 50 of her articles have appeared in journals, including those in a third book manuscript now nearing completion. Similarly, some 300 poems came out initially in periodicals, and many have been anthologized.
Like her essays, Boruch’s poetry is triggered at times by unorthodox research, the rewiring of old circuits, and draws from such subjects as anatomy and biography, the history of medicine, and art in the ancient and medieval world.
But the research behind poems can take unsettling, quite physical turns. Keeping Frost’s “burrs on the pant leg” in mind, Boruch applied for Purdue’s “Faculty Fellowship in a Second Discipline” to dare herself, to put herself in a strange situation with no idea what might happen, willfully clearing any preconceived notions about outcome, promising only total attention.
That fall of 2008, she was generously welcomed into two semester-long classes on campus: Gross Human Anatomy (the so-called “dissection lab”), a first course for medical students taught by Professor James Walker in the IU School of Medicine division on Purdue’s campus, and Life Drawing, a studio class offered by artist GraceBenedict of the Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts. Most literally, this double privilege turned out to be “hands on” research; it triggered Boruch’s eighth book of poems, Cadaver, Speak, published last April. A dissection lab, a life-drawing studio. Add what an old college boyfriend loved to advise anyone — how do you know when you get there? First, you go there! It’s something writers Arthur Conan Doyle, John Keats and William Carlos Williams could have said, those dodgy, unlikely bedfellows whose first thing in common was their medical training. Poetry as therapy, the nice dinner party: No. But its diagnosis by warp and design, the observation of hard detail, to scare oneself into discovery maybe, exactly: Yes.