FAQ: John Wilkinson

Did you have a favorite class or text in college? What made it your favorite?

A lecture series titled Poetry and Language at the University of Cambridge, delivered by J. H. Prynne with fantastic eloquence and erudition, no notes consulted, and exemplifying a philological style of poetry reading descending from German romanticism. The most memorable lectures for me were on Coleridge's 'Frost at Midnight' and Frank O'Hara's 'In Memory of My Feelings'. O'Hara's Collected Poems had been published the year before I heard Prynne's lecture. In the U.S., O'Hara's work was still routinely disparaged and in Britain no one had heard of him. The reverberations of Prynne's lectures continue to affect generations of poets and scholars, through those who heard them and are now teaching.

What would you have liked to tell the 20-year-old version of yourself about college?

Don't go to graduate school unless and until you are driven by passionate necessity. Take time out first. (This applies to MFA programs also.)

Did you go straight to graduate school after college? If not, what was the most interesting thing you did in the interim?

Yes. But I did work as an auxiliary nurse in a cancer hospice during the intervening summer. That had more than interesting consequences—after graduate school I worked in health services for twenty-five years.

What made you decide to specialize in your current subfield in English?

It chose me. Studying and writing poetry have been the condition for my thinking and affective life.

What is the most intriguing or quirky idea that you have learned from your recent research?

“Research” is a term I would replace by “inquiry” since I work as both a poet and a scholar. So here is an idea: in Micronesia, navigation between islands is guided by ocean swells (dunung). I recognize this practice corresponds to poetics. Scholars in other branches of literary study may use the stars or road maps.

What is your favorite work of literature to teach to undergraduates?

There's no simple answer to that, because teaching involves the teacher, the texts and the students. A work I might start teaching as a duty can feel disconcertingly vital if the class is responsive, and work I love can turn to ashes if met with indifference. But if pressed I would say I like teaching New York School poetry to undergraduates because to discover the astonishing work of Frank O'Hara, Barbara Guest, John Ashbery and James Schuyler (to name my favorites) will always be revelatory for someone, and maybe for several students, in any class. 

What do you like best about teaching college students at the University of Chicago?

In general students at the University of Chicago care more about thinking, learning and disputing than about grades. And the great thing about teaching literature is that anyone in a class might deliver an insight about a familiar, even canonical text, which has never occurred to me nor, so far as I know, to any published critic. I can never be allowed to forget I'm a student too.