Friday, 18 September 2009

Mike Theune's generous introduction, 15 September 2009 at Illinois Wesleyan University

"It’s my great pleasure this afternoon to introduce poet Carrie Etter.

Carrie is a terrific poet of wit. But let me be clear about what I mean when I say this. I don’t mean that her poetry is slapstick or necessarily laugh out loud funny—although some of it is. (Carrie was gracious enough to come and visit my poetry writing class, and, according to her, she writes one funny poem every seven years, so, according to her accounts, she’s due for one next year.) Rather, I mean by this something that M.L. Rosenthal touches on in his book The Poet’s Art. Rosenthal states,

Pleasure, play, wit, comedy: it is hard, offhand, to think of these words, or concepts, in relation to deeply serious poetry. The connection, in fact, may be the most difficult thing about any art for people to grasp... Much of the character of poetry as an art, rather than as a mere statement of ideas or personal expression, depends on this quality of formal play. This quality militates against sentimentality (the demand for unearned emotional response) and other sorts of false eloquence. It provides the distancing that allows a poem to build itself as an organic construct in its own right.”

This is the kind of serious wit that I think Carrie creates in poem after poem: with intricate craft—gorgeous syntax, and formal control—Carrie manages—using a brain which she herself admitted to today is “strange”—to create poems that drive toward a singular aim: the almost magical combination of appropriateness and incongruity, of fittingness and surprise. In Poetic Closure, Barbara Herrnstein Smith states that wit occurs when readerly expectations are both fulfilled and surpassed. It is this effect that Carrie is after, and delivers time and again. The proper response may not be a guffaw, but undoubtedly you will feel—among many other things—that fizz in your brain that you’ve felt when you’ve heard a great punch line.

Carrie’s first book, The Tethers, from Seren Books, was published this past June. Poems of hers have appeared in The New Republic, Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Seneca Review, Stand, The Times Literary Supplement, and other journals, and her next collection, Divining for Starters, will be published by Shearsman Books in early 2011. Carrie is a native of Normal, Illinois and is a staple on WGLT’s “Poetry Radio.” But for some time, she’s been an ex-pat, teaching creative writing at Bath Spa University in England.

In his essay “Andrew Marvell,” T.S. Eliot says that wit is something “precious” and something “needed today.” And because the making of wit is really hard work, I think this remains the case, even decades later. This is why—at least one of the reasons why—we’re lucky to have poets like Carrie Etter working today, and why we’re so fortunate to have her read for us this afternoon. Please help me welcome her."

Thanks to Mike for this lovely introduction as well as permission to post it here.


  1. How marvelous! Congrats on this.

  2. What an intro. Though I really don't understand Barbara Herrnstein Smith's assertion except in the sense that

    The doubt of future foes exiles my present joy,
    And wit me warns to shun such snares as threaten mine annoy;

    Do You?