The Transformer

barton thurber


The last thing Barton Thurber expected when he arrived at Stanford as a freshman engineering major was to be ambushed by a dead poet. But that’s what happened when the self-described “math and science kid” tackled a tough English assignment: The Notebooks of Malte Laurid Brigge by German writer Rainer Maria Rilke.

“I started reading at seven o’clock one night, and by eight o’clock the next morning I was an English major,” Thurber recalls. “It was a true conversion experience to a whole other way of encountering life than I’d ever dreamed existed. Suddenly, the one thing in the world I believed in and wanted to be a part of was literature.”

For the past 31 years, Thurber has conveyed that love of literature to his appreciative students at USD, where he’s taught poetry, Romanticism and 19th century British lit; served as English department chair; and attracted numerous grants, honors and awards.

Thurber came to USD in 1979, fresh from his doctoral work at Harvard. He never imagined he’d stay his entire career. But the young, evolving campus suited him, offering opportunities to explore his abiding curiosity about how things work, a holdover perhaps from his pre-engineering days. Thurber’s scholarly work addresses not only 19th century novels, but also the 21st century intersection of literature and technology — how the Internet affects narrative, for instance.

Sit in on one of his poetry classes, and you’ll see Thurber has also re-engineered the classroom for the millennial generation. No boring lectures, and no tolerance for apathy either, even at 7:45 a.m.

“You don’t get to be a fly on the wall,” he says. “This is because there are no flies, and, if I ever have anything to say about it, no walls.”

Instead, Thurber enables his students to experience a poet’s process, and even the birth of a new literary era.

“We’re going to invent American poetry in three steps,” he announces, and 20 sleepy students wake up and begin to puzzle out step one: listing the differences between merry olde England and the 75-year-old American nation in 1850.

“America was an idea before it was a nation,” Thurber hints. “America had a frontier, an escape from law and order. So what is American poetry going to be like?”

Gradually, they get it. American poetry should be new and different, unfettered from meter, rhyme and stuffy language. It should express freedom from outdated social structures. It should celebrate opportunity and individualism. It should, in fact, sound a lot like Walt Whitman’s groundbreaking “Song of Myself.”

Thurber reads a chunk of Whitman, points out its rhyme-free verse and everyday language. He recounts the vicious criticism Whitman initially encountered — charges of egomania and lack of craftsmanship — and asks the class if the critics were right.

Students confer and decide Whitman’s first-person voice is more plural than singular, his song not really of himself but of a cocky, adolescent nation working out its identity and direction.

“OK,” Thurber concludes, “now that you’ve got an idea of what American poetry is, write some.”

Ten minutes later, the hour ends in a flurry of fresh born verse read aloud, each poem, however unpolished, a reasonable facsimile of Whitman’s sassy authenticity. Thurber leaves the room satisfied.

“I see jaws dropping as they understand the truth, beauty and power of literature,” he says. “Some students are staggered by what literature can do, because they’ve never seen it before. Once you get someone like that in the classroom, it’s a privilege to be there.” — Sandra Millers Younger

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