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In fact, I have no wish to reason with you. Instead, I speak as a writer and poet, and as a reader who is passionate about poetry.
Among you at Yale, I am quite sure there are young men and women who openly or secretly consider themselves to be poets. Some of them are "women, people of color, and queer folk." Now, when you take away the major tradition of poetry in the English language--Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and many others--you deprive your own future poets of the rock they will build on. The now-and-future poets of Yale may choose to write against these voices that belong to us all. Your poets may even write in distress or anger. And yet, whatever their background, their word-wielding force will not be unchanged--will accrue strength and power--by encounters with the work of the great writers of the past. Your poets may not even like some of what they read. But any dislike does not matter a whit. The way forward always involves the tradition, and strong poems of the past are still the rock on which your Yale poets will build. (I note that in no discipline or art do its followers throw away the past before starting their own work.) Great poems of the past remain the touchstones against which new poems of our own day will be measured.
And for a reader of literature who has no intention of becoming a writer? Like it or not, the great works of the past are still the touchstones of power--the words played with in joy until the work is bright--against which an understanding, informed reader instinctively measures the work of his or her time. Without respect and some degree of love for the achievements of the past, how can a reader assess the fresh achievements of the present? If they are worth surviving the flail of time, the poems of our own day will eventually live in the past. But what about the reader's work of supporting and sharing the best that is made now? Without regard for past monuments of the spirit and intellect, how can a reader begin to winnow today's gold grain from the chaff--in fact, how will the reader be able to tell what is gold from what is chaff?
As a reader and as a poet, I look forward to reading your future Yale poets, including "women, people of color, and queer folk." I wish them well. And I wish them well read.
Petition to the Yale English Department Faculty
We, undergraduate students in the Yale English Department, write to urge the faculty to reevaluate the undergraduate curriculum. We ask the department to reconsider the current core requirements and the introductory courses for the major.
In particular, we oppose the continued existence of the Major English Poets sequence as the primary prerequisite for further study. It is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors. A year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity. The Major English Poets sequences creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.
When students are made to feel so alienated that they get up and leave the room, or get up and leave the major, something is wrong. The English department loses out when talented students engaged in literary and cultural analysis are driven away from the major. Students who continue on after taking the introductory sequence are ill-prepared to take higher-level courses relating to race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, ability, or even to engage with critical theory or secondary scholarship. We ask that Major English Poets be abolished, and that the pre-1800/1900 requirements be refocused to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity.
It’s time for the English major to decolonize — not diversify — its course offerings. A 21st century education is a diverse education: we write to you today inspired by student activism across the university, and to make sure that you know that the English department is not immune from the collective call to action.
It is our understanding that the faculty must vote in order to reconsider the major’s requirements — considering the concerns expressed here and elsewhere by undergraduate students, we believe it would be unethical for any member of the faculty, no matter their stance on these issues, to vote against beginning the reevaluation process. It is your responsibility as educators to listen to student voices. We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.