Poetry: A “Critical Estimate of Culture”
Date published: February 13, 2017
Why poetry? Can it truly change the world? As panelists of the upcoming University
of Dallas Poetry Symposium argue, poetry enlightens and enriches our lives, awaking
an imaginative response to the world.
“I'm attracted to poetry because I find in the great poets that form of wisdom that
bears most directly and most concretely upon the conduct of life,” said Professor
of English John Alvis, Ph.D. “Poetry has provided me a touchstone for judging the
access to wisdom afforded by other fields of the humanities, that is by study of history,
politics, language, the other forms of the fine arts.”
Known by many for her love of lyric poetry, Louise Cowan would certainly share this
view. Founder of the University of Dallas Core curriculum, former Braniff Graduate
School dean and co-founder of the Institute of Philosophic Studies, Louise Cowan left
two generations of her followers a set of ringing convictions about language, literature,
and culture. These convictions will be brought to the fore in Can Poetry Save the World? held in her honor on Feb. 24 at University of Dallas.
“Culture is a people's way of life,” Alvis said, “and poetry shapes, preserves and
changes culture because it presents a truthful image of a people and a critical estimate
of culture in the light of eternal standards of the true, the good and the beautiful
- verities not confined to any particular culture.”
“The poets who most interest me are those who work on the grand scale: Homer, Sophocles,
Virgil, Dante, Milton, most especially Shakespeare and Cervantes,” Alvis said. “Why?
Because these poets take into view the most fundamental human concerns: man's relation
to God, to civil society and church, to spouse and family, to physical nature through
work and art.”
Other panelists, like Glenn Arbery, president of Wyoming Catholic College and Braniff
Graduate School alumnus, also recognize the richness of poetry. Arbery plans to speak
on Louise Cowan's emphasis on the four Aristotelian genres from the Poetics: epic,
tragedy, comedy, and lyric.
“Poetry in the largest sense gives people a way to imagine and inhabit the world,”
Arbery said. “Indeed, the greatest works virtually make a world in terms of the way
people imagine their relations to the divine, to the dead, to political institutions,
to nature, and to technology. To take just two examples, it is difficult to imagine
the Greeks and their cultural descendants without Homer or the English-speaking world
What Alvis, Arbery, and fellow panelists Scott Crider, Ph.D., Eileen Gregory, Ph.D.
and Bainard Cowan, Ph.D., have in common — aside from their love of poetry — was the
privilege to learn from Cowan herself. Alvis and Arbery both look back on their education
from Cowan with appreciation.
“From her earliest published writings we can understand that Louise Cowan's concern
with the literature produced by Southern writers provided a direction for all her
subsequent thought,” Alvis said, indicating the direction he plans to take during
“Louise was able to enter the imaginative world of a writer and take her students
into its depths of meaning without at any point abandoning the poetic particularity
of the work,” Arbery said. “Her theories were helpful, but what truly moved me was
her gift of revealing, through her own example and imaginative participation, the
most important realities hidden in a work, often through dispelling a misconception.
Her judgment was uncanny.”
You're invited to join the Braniff Graduate School community at the upcoming symposium,
Can Poetry Save the World? at 6 p.m. on Feb. 24 in SB Hall. This event, along with a series of others, commemorates
50 years of graduate liberal arts education at the University of Dallas. For more
information and to RSVP, please visit: https://udallas.edu/braniff50th