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English professors wax poetic and sympathetic at Windows on the World

An intimate crowd gathered in the auditorium to watch and hear English professors Nancy Thomas and Chris Bittenbender read poetry for Windows on the World on March 24.

The two professors titled their program “Singing the Sadness,” stressing poetry’s ability to bring healing in times of pain and featuring poems that did just that. The majority of the poems read were originals by Thomas and Bittenbender, but a few others were read as well.

The crowd entered the auditorium to a recording of a jazz version of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” performed by the Ramsey Lewis Trio. Then Caroline Cherry, the English department chair, introduced Thomas and Bittenbender, praising the poets for their abilities to both find truth and express it.

Cherry noted that the poets are each the authors of hundreds of poems, and she said that they “know language enough to play with her and tease out her delights.”

Both Thomas’ and Bittenbender’s poems were often very personal and very specific, really allowing the audience to gain an understanding of the kinds of pain the two have felt in their lifetimes.

Thomas opened with “Can You?” which reflected upon a myriad of timely issues ranging from gambling to Darfur, from lymphoma to Septa bus schedules.

Thomas’ second poem told the terrible true story of a Barry School student who was killed on January 6 when she was hit by one car and then another. The repetition of the word “Stop” in the poem was a dark reminder of just what the drivers did not do.

After reading a short poem by Wendell Berry that saw a glimpse of light amidst the darkness surrounding the Vietnam War, Bittenbender read a few poems he wrote in grieving his father. Bittenbender’s father died of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Two of the poems were fond memories of joining his father in his father’s hobbies of carpentry and masonry, but the other poems dealt more directly with his father’s sickness and death.

Bittenbender did provide some lighter fare with poems about his two children, Glenn and Caroline.

Bittenbender also mentioned that loss of love was one of those painful topics that he would often write poetry about, but he did not get around to reading any of those poems.

“It was depressing to remember how many women dumped me through my life,” he said, describing his reaction as he had looked for poems to read for the program.

Both poets wrapped up with poems appropriate for goodbyes. Bittenbender read W.S. Merwin’s “When You Go Away.”

Thomas delivered the final poem of the program, Mary Oliver’s “Sending You Out.” This poem, according to Thomas, is about how poetry is always, without exception, about finding hope.

The audience listened intently to the poets’ words, laughing at the jokes, but remaining dead silent at the heavier moments that demanded thought and respect.

The program closed with another recorded musical number performed by Ramsey Lewis: “Pass Me Not, Oh Gentle Savior.”

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