This spring, Sidney Shapiro, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering at the University of Rochester, taught a course on the life and poetry of Hyam Plutzik in Rochester, New York. In the essay abbreviated below, he shares some of the insights and stories that arose from the experience. Click here for the full text of Mr. Shapiro’s essay.
For ten weeks, from the first week of April through the first week of June 2012, I had the privilege of leading a course at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) that featured the poetry of Hyam Plutzik. This was my contribution to the Plutzik 50/100 Centennial celebration. Here is the story of that course. How class members, a number of them poets with several volumes of poetry to their credit, reacted to being made aware of the person and poetry of Hyam Plutzik. How one of the class members shared with us the Hyam Plutzik he knew as his professor and the influence that experience had in his becoming himself. How, astonishingly, our attention to just one of his poems led to its identification as a novel form invented by Hyam. How the study of his war poetry shed light on the contrast between his experiences of World War II and those of Anthony Hecht, who also became the Deane Professor of Poetry and Rhetoric at the University of Rochester (UR). And how this writer, a former physicist, ended up leading poetry courses at OLLI and the cascade of events over more than twenty years that culminated in this unique course.
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Having spent the bulk of our time on the substance of [“The King of Ai”], I found it necessary to comment on its unusual form, since no one seemed to see it until I pointed it out. The poem is formed in ten couplets with the end words of the first couplet, “eventide” and “city,” repeated in reverse order in the second couplet. The alternation of these two end words continues throughout the remaining couplets.
Now David Hill, a retired Professor of English whose specialty was the intricacy of language, decided to follow up on the form of this poem. He contacted a friend, Lewis Turco, who is noted for his poetry but especially for The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, which has seen several updates and revisions since its original publication in 1968. Turco was fascinated by the poem and asserted it was a novel form invented by Hyam Plutzik. He intends to include it in the next edition of his Book of Forms.
But the story gets even more astonishing. Just a few days later, David Hill told me that Turco had used this new-to-him form in a poem about his father, a poem he had been contemplating for a long time until the stimulus of “The King of Ai” and its novel form provided the push he needed to write it.
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The last few classes were devoted to the war poems of Hyam Plutzik and of Anthony Hecht. Here were contrasted the differing experiences of war that each poet endured and the different poetic expression of these experiences. Whereas Plutzik enlisted in the Army in 1943 when he was thirty two, ultimately becoming an officer in the Air Force, Hecht was drafted before completing his undergraduate degree. He was placed in the ASTP—Army Specialized Training Program. Those selected for ASTP were assigned to one of the more than two hundred participating universities where they took courses designed to train them to serve in Army Intelligence or other specialized units. They received college credit for these courses and Hecht completed his degree with these transferred credits. But suddenly the Program was terminated and all of the two hundred thousand or so participants were assigned to infantry combat units.
A class member, Bob Nolan, spoke up when I referred to Hecht’s experience in ASTP and told us all that he too had been drafted out of college and assigned to the ASTP unit at Princeton. The credits from Princeton were enough to complete his UR degree. But he too found himself in the infantry and in combat when ASTP was terminated. Just as Hyam Plutzik and Anthony Hecht found in poetry the way to capture the effect of World War II on them, so did Bob Nolan who later shared with us some of his war poems. Hecht’s “A Friend Killed in the War,” which describes the death of a comrade in combat,
And his flesh opened like a peony,
Red at the heart, white petals furling out.
is echoed in Nolan’s “The Orchard”:
The back of the man ahead blossoms
With a quivering mass of tendrils
Ruby red against the olive drab
Here was yet another extraordinary coincidence in this course, and one that had each of us in our own particular way feeling the emotion of the combat experience from which we were personally spared.
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The course was a remarkable experience for me and for the class members. For me there was the wonder, the excitement and the joy in being the transmitter of Hyam Plutzik’s poetry to such a receptive group. The impact on the class members was well put by one of the well-published poets in the class when she said how marvelous it was to become aware of and to study the work of such a truly remarkable poet. I hope the reader of these words comes to feel just how remarkable this course was, a fitting contribution to the Plutzik 50/100.