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Davis, California

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Haiku are not just for English class

A student makes his way to the front of the class and starts to sing a rap about fish. He’s chosen to sing his haiku about salmon, a haiku he’s been required to write for his class, Wildlife, Fish and Conservation 120, also known as Biology of Fishes. This is just one of the interesting perks Professor Peter B. Moyle includes in his classes: poetry.

While poetry may seem a lost art to some, it is actually a unique skill many professors and graduate students here at UC Davis are incorporating into their classes. Just because you are not enrolled in an English course does not mean you will escape the experience of writing poetry in a fish biology class or a design class.

Professor Moyle said he cannot ever remember not using poetry in his classes, even when he taught as a graduate student over 40 years ago.

“In my fish class, I write a haiku on the board every morning and require students to write at least one or some other form of poetry. I also encourage them to place haiku in class essays, which is tricky but can be done,” Moyle said.

He considers haiku to require surprising discipline when writing the five-seven-five syllable pattern. While Moyle wants his students to try their best at composing haiku, he also uses them for entertainment.

Design professor D.R. Wagner is also a poet and teaches Poetry by Design.

“I teach Poetry by Design, which uses design principles as a basis for writing. I had them work with images that were very ephemeral. It’s the only drawing class [that I know of] where you have to tell a story about [the art],” Wagner said.

Wagner recently published a book called 97 Poems. This is one of over 20 books on poetry and letters Wagner has published. He said that his style does not seem to have changed, but rather matured over time.

“I write in a variety of styles. It’s a lyrical [style], sometimes there’s a narrative to it, most of the poems seem to be atmospheric, there are different states of being [in them],” Wagner said.

His topics tend to focus on angels, stars and the moon, as well as emotional space.

“I tend to think that emotions are really void, and that when we try to describe them we can talk around the edges of them; we can find out what they’re like but we can’t express them directly except by immersing one’s self in the poetry,” Wagner said.

Wagner read some of his poetry at the John Natsoulas Gallery this past Thursday.

English graduate student Eric Sneathen, whose emphasis is poetry, has lived in Davis for seven years and considers Natsoulas to be the best place to read poetry.

“There are [also] some other open mics — like SickSpits has one on campus, and it tends to be more spoken-word,” Sneathen said. “Dr. Andy has a radio show and he advertises his open mic on that as well.”

While Wagner describes his style as lyrical, Moyle prefers to practice the short rhythms of haiku and Sneathen prefers not to stick to a particular style.

“For me, I think personal style is kind of a trap. Style is kind of an argument unto itself. In making different arguments, I try to make different styles to make that happen,” Sneathen said.

Both Sneathen and Wagner enjoy having their poetry published, considering that poetry can often be overlooked in the readership world.

“The readership for poetry is always gonna be kind of low. Every magazine has its own audience; a lot of people would prefer to be in smaller magazines where they know who they’re talking to than getting sold in a large magazine like The New Yorker,” Sneathen said.

However, having smaller magazines pick up the poet’s work ensures that the right target audience is being reached.

As far as the content of his book, Wagner considers “Cancion del cielo” to be one of his favorite poems.

Poetry, whether it be the lyrical poems of Wagner’s or the concise haiku of Moyle’s, can often be considered an old-fashioned art. Sneathen points out that many people read modern poetry without realizing it.

“Do people read contemporary poetry? They do and they don’t. I had my [English] 5P class read Shel Silverstein, and most people have read [him] and Dr. Seuss,” Sneathen said. “I think people forget … that those things are poetry. I think people end up being afraid of what modern poetry is.”

Sneathen hopes that students will continue to immerse themselves in learning and writing poetry, especially with the many opportunities that exist today to explore more of it.

“I think in terms of readership and access, I think [Master of Fine Arts] programs have really opened up audiences and reception,” Sneathen said. “In a way poetry seems more accessible now than ever.”

ALYSSA KUHLMAN can be reached at features@theaggie.org.


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