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Ryan Wilson reads his poetry to Hillsdale College stu­dents and faculty. COLLEGIAN | Julia Mullins

When poet Ryan Wilson, current editor of “Lit­erary Matters,” visited Hillsdale College, stu­dents and faculty had the oppor­tunity to hear a live reading of his poetry and attend a poetry workshop.

During his live reading, Wilson read poems he had trans­lated, newly-written poems, and poems from his book “The Stranger World,” which won the 2017 Donald Justice Poetry Prize.

“The book moves through great spir­itual darkness toward a glimpse of hope and life at the end,” Wilson said. “It is a kind of ‘katabasis’ or descent into the under­world and the return, nar­ra­tively modeled on the ‘Inferno’ of Dante.”

Junior English major Dietrich Bals­baugh, who attended the poetry workshop, said that there is a notion that modern poetry isn’t good, and some poets try to sound great by writing about old things.

“When I read Wilson’s poems, I can tell that he lives in the same world I’m living in, he sees the same things,” Bals­baugh said. “I really love how he cap­tures the world that I see as well, he’s not overly focused on sounding old.”

Senior English major Kasia Ignatik also said she appre­ciates Wilson’s modern content but tra­di­tional tech­niques.

“He sounds modern, but he still rec­og­nizes the impor­tance of tech­nique, lan­guage, and tra­dition,” Ignatik said. “It’s important to reach the audience but also pre­serve the integrity of poetry.”

Bals­baugh said one of his favorite poems from “The Stranger World” is “The View on Waking,” which describes con­tents sus­pended in the space between a window screen and the window glass.

“It’s a beau­tiful poem, it helps you see the world dif­fer­ently,” Bals­baugh said. “I don’t think I’ll ever look at window screen the same.”

During his live reading, Wilson com­pared great poetry to reality in its com­plexity.

“It’s some­thing for which no pattern can be easily dis­cerned,” Wilson said. “You’re just over­whelmed by it, you tend to wonder at it and awe at it.”

Bals­baugh said Wilson’s poems rec­ognize that every­thing in the world has meaning.

“You can tell he’s writing to the world,” Bals­baugh said.

Wilson also com­pared the skill and craft behind great poetry to watching a magic trick.

“When you watch a magic trick, you don’t want to know how it was done,” Wilson said. “Of course, magic requires a great deal of tech­nique, and sleight-of-hand, and every­thing else. If you want to learn how to do it, you have to learn those tech­niques. But before any­thing, drink in the pleasure of it, enjoy the mystery and the wonder, that’s so much what poetry is for.”

Wilson said for any content to make it into his poems, it has to interact mean­ingly with the form.

“If the form is not engaging with the content, it’s not really doing a lot poet­i­cally,” Wilson said.

Echoing T.S. Elliot, Wilson added that he believes there is no such thing as free verse.

“There is verse that has an irregular meter, but it’s not free,” Wilson said. “It’s not that I have a flag to wave about formal verse, it’s that the prac­ti­tioners them­selves value it.”

Wilson said he has learned how to create dif­ferent meters, and meters that break the regular pattern expres­sively and mean­ing­fully, by trans­lating and mem­o­rizing great poems.

“You don’t want to repeat slav­ishly what people before you have done,” Wilson said. “You want to take the tools you inherit and take them to a new place, modify them in your own way.”

Poetry is meant to be spoken, Wilson said. Accord­ingly, he described saying a lot of  things aloud when he writes, because he writes his own poems to be spoken as well.

“A lot of times when you start writing, your poems are just like a ball rolling down a hill, but you want it to zig and zag, the way that the voice zigs and zags in con­ver­sation,” he said. “Hearing things and exploring syntax and the way syntax can be maneu­vered to sound like speech, to sound like med­i­tation, to sound like an authentic emo­tional moment, to sound playful, and all these things, requires training your ear.”

In order to train his ear, Wilson said he reads poets he admires aloud, and then mem­o­rizes their poems.

“If you’re inter­ested in writing poetry, I would say you should have at least 10,000 lines by heart,” Wilson said. “It gives you a feel for poetry that sounds like somebody speaking.”

Wilson said under­standing tech­nique is important, but the tech­nique doesn’t at all approach the effect of a great poem: The poem is greater than the sum of all its parts.

“Revel in that wonder and that awe,” Wilson said. “That it is an important feeling to have.”