Happy 2021! I hope everyone enjoyed the semester break during this unusual academic year. Covid-19? A falsely contested presidential election? A riot at the United States Capitol? What else can happen? More important, what can we, as people immersed in the humanities and the study of literature, do to promote understanding and sympathy among people with different convictions? How can we become the “United” States of America? There’s no simple answer to these questions, of course, but there are sundry ways we can make positive contributions.
I believe that we are at a moment when the world needs the humanities immensely, a time akin to the years after World War II when the humanities became central to combating fascism and narrow ideological thinking. The riot at the United States Capitol on January 6th prompted Dean Smith to ask Michael Kimmage of the Department of History and Matthew Green of the Department of Politics to host a series of events this semester that explore issues concerning democracy. The program will be announced soon and I look forward to participating. Professor Kimmage and Green’s series will primarily, and appropriately, concern politics. But I’d like to take a moment to consider other ways that the humanities, and literature in specific, are vital. As our undergraduate majors and graduate students finish their studies, it’s worth thinking about possibilities for career paths, ways that literary studies can provide the bedrock for a range of satisfying careers that contribute to society’s wellbeing.
In December I co-authored, with David Cloutier of the Department of Theology, a grant proposal, submitted to the Teagle Foundation and the National Endowment of the Humanities, to develop interdisciplinary areas of concentration within Catholic University’s undergraduate curriculum that revolve around the humanities. One of the pathways we proposed is the “Health Humanities,” an area in which my longtime and dear friend Kate Daniels has been a pioneer. I sought Kate’s advice with the proposal, and will use her career as an example of what a person immersed in literary study can accomplish beyond the immense good of teaching literature, writing, and critical thinking.
Kate is an extraordinary poet whose writing has become increasingly powerful as her work in the “health humanities” has deepened. She teaches at Vanderbilt University and has been far ahead of other artists and the medical community in championing the arts’ role in helping people process trauma, especially in relation to addiction. She is a friend to our campus—a practicing Catholic who has given readings on campus on a half dozen occasions. She’s also a former President and Vice President of the ALSCW. Her commitments to her art and to her work in the health humanities are rooted in her life experiences. Like many writers who emerged from the American South, she struggled with her relationship to the region. She was born in Richmond, Virginia into a working class family—no one in her family had attended college and many family members never finished high school. However, her mother was appalled by the Jim Crow racism she witnessed during the 1940s and the 1950s, and was disturbed by the South’s anti-intellectualism and prideful provincialism, sentiments that had a profound influence on her daughter. Kate’s own sense of social justice often clashed with conservative aspects of southern culture, while at the same time she came to value many southern traditions, particularly an emphasis on community and oral culture. Her poetry suggests these tensions: her verse often draws on everyday speech and centers on the day-to-day challenges of juggling motherhood, marriage, and working in a society continually adjusting to the reality of many people’s lives. Like her poetry, her work in the health humanities is informed by her life experiences, especially family members’ struggles with alcoholism, other forms of substance abuse, and psychiatric problems. Her thoughts on the relationship between her creative practices and her work with people suffering from trauma suggest her commitment to using her writing to understand her own life and to help others comprehend their plights:
I am a person of faith, and my belief is that no matter what happens – even if the worst happens, that a child dies, the child’s parents will go on living. Which means that life – whatever it is – will go on. The dead will bury the dead. Life is for the living. All those clichés. No matter what, I go on believing that there’s something larger than we are and that is implicated in our very existence, and that loves us. I know that sounds absurd to a many people. I’m a pessimist in some ways, but somehow my faith makes me experience life as filled with blessings and joy as it is scourged by pain. Life is not preschool, and it’s not rainbow soccer. It’s not fair. We’re not in control, and we don’t get to choose. In poetry and in life, all we can do is come to the page, approach the moment with as much consciousness as we can bear, and with the ongoing awareness that the only control we have in this world is of ourselves – the words we commit to the paper, the choices we make in life. *
Kate’s first book of poetry, The White Wave (1984)—she calls it her “baby book . . . a bouquet of what my editor and I considered to be the best poems I had written up to then”—garnered the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. Her next book of poetry, The Niobe Poems (1988), established her as a powerful voice in American letters. The Niobe Poems are Kate’s response to a family tragedy, the accidental drowning of her beloved five-year-old nephew. She characterized her initial attempts to write about the boy’s death as “morbid, mawkish, just plain bad.”** In short, the trauma overwhelmed her and she needed a buffer between her pain and the words on the page. The Niobe myth provided her with the distance she needed to forge a poetic narrative that enabled her to couch the tragedy in a wider context and sympathize with a wide range of people’s reactions to trauma. The poem below captures the psychological entanglements and devastation caused by the loss of a child. The narrator’s reflections on a painter’s depiction of a World War II prison camp allows Kate to amplify the narrator’s personal trauma and suggests how art can serve as a conduit for containing and processing pain.
At last, her hands are not shaking.
Finally, her eyes are dry.
She thinks of the dead
calmly, without terror.
She thinks of paintings and history
to remind herself how small
her tragedies are, how bad
they might have been.
The painter's parents
died at Dachau,
and his famous picture
shows them walking away
older than they ever were,
worn-out and gray, trudging
up a hillside forever.
She likes the painting
because its story
cannot change, cannot
continue to the nocturnal round-up,
the trains of terrified families
passing through the night.
In the painting, the dead
are walking up a mountain
forever. They will not get cold
or hungry or any older.
They will not die.
She likes to imagine
the painter at his easel,
of his tragic history
and personal pain.
For a short while, he had only
a task: combining color
on the palette,
a problem: how thickly
to apply the paint.
His tragedy eventually became a picture
--a beautiful picture.
Then someone bought it from him
and took it away.
Soon after the publication of The Niobe Poems Kate began to explore the role the arts, and poetry in specific, could play in treating trauma. In 1992 she started to work with patients, staff, and medical students at the Duke University Medical Center and in the mid-1990s she continued her work at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. These experiences strengthened her ability to forge her life experiences into works of art that speak to a wide array of people, including those of different genders, social classes, and nationalities. Like Walt Whitman—whose poetry has influenced Kate deeply—she “contains multitudes,” a quality evident in her next book. Four Testimonies (1998), like The Niobe Poems, inhabits a range of perspectives. The first “testimony” consists of four long poems from the point of view of the French political thinker and religious philosopher, Simone Weil. Subsequent sections depict the perspectives of three survivors of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, the complex traumas of an abused woman, and the sufferings of her grown daughter, whose husband has just committed suicide. The book’s final section, "Portrait of the Artist as Mother," consists of twenty poems exploring the difficulties and bounties of motherhood. Similarly, A Walk in Victoria’s Secret (2011) presents the perspectives of women at various stages of their lives in poems that explore subjects that include a belated apology to a Black girl who integrated the white narrator’s elementary school, young and older women’s experiences in a gynecologist’s office, and a teacher pumping breast milk in her office between classes.
These books earned Kate wide acclaim, and induction into the Fellowship of Southern Writers. She could have rested on her well-earned laurels, and been satisfied with a comfortable life of teaching and writing. Instead, she made extraordinary efforts to develop the health humanities over the last ten years, a time during which the “opioid crisis” garnered a great deal of attention as pharmaceutical companies enriched themselves while addicts and their families suffered. Kate’s In the Months of My Son’s Recovery (2019) is one of the most poignant books of the twenty-first century. Composed in response to the struggles of her son with addiction, the book treats his dilemma as an illness that infects the entire family. Kate’s use of pronouns, rather than proper names, throughout the book reflects her career-long practice of enlarging a personal narrative so that others who experience similar situations can find themselves in the story. The sections’ titles also reflect the systematic nature of addiction. The first section is titled Her; the second is The Addict’s Mother; the third is Him; and the last is Us. The book’s primary narrator, the addict’s mother, enters Al-Anon, a twelve-step program designed to help family members deal with an addict within their family. The book details how the first thing people must discover is that they must control themselves because it is impossible to control others. Like most of her collections, the book balances colloquial, accessible language with an intricate overarching design: the book consists of narrative poems that create a longer narrative that comments on narrative and narrativity. Kate intertwines the dynamic of the twelve-stage program with the process of poetic composition—the poet comes to the page with a thought but the process of chiseling the poem modifies and sharpens the thought. Control is limited by the dictates of language and poetic form. Ideas, characters, and lines are arranged in relation one another and to an array of sounds. The narrator initially believes that nobody could feel as much pain as she is experiencing, but other people’s stories overwhelm her, and that affects her story and enlarges her reality. The meetings’ structure and the constraints of language help clarify her choices, and she must accept choices she cannot control. For instance, “The Power of Narrative” involves a meeting for addicted people’s family members. The poem’s structure—it is written in tercets—suggests such meetings’ highly regulated structure and the ways in which language, thought, the addict, and the addict’s family are interdependent. Another poem, “Support Group,” is consciously unpoetic and bluntly captures how suffering people gather to contend with the realities of an addict destroying his or her own life—and the lives of people who love them.
For a long time, each day was a bad day.
Truthfully? For years, each day was a bad day.
The nights were worse, but she could slide
The deadbolt on the bedroom door, and swallow
An Ambien, or two, to summon sleep.
Thank God she never dreamed about it.
The meetings helped, but it was hard to go
Because the first thing you did was admit
You were fucked, and had no power.
It was worse to stay home, sitting on the fear
Like a solitary hen hatching poisoned eggs.
There were a lot of rules and tissues in the room.
The rules were followed. The tissues were
Dispensed to those who wept.
In the rooms, there was infinite suffering.
It had 3 minutes each to describe itself.
A little timer went off, or someone waved
A cardboard clock face in the air. One Suffering
Stopped talking. Then the next Suffering started up.
A lot of suffering in the world, is the first clear thought
Most people have when they come here.
In 2008 Kate began to work with the Washington-Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis, and in 2019 she accepted a permanent position with the Center for Biomedical Ethics and the Humanities at the University of Virginia. She has appeared before psychiatric associations and addressed how the arts can benefit children in addicts’ families. She has spoken to groups of neurologists considering the relationship between addiction and behavioral patterns. She has spoken to fledging and established creative writers about how art can serve as a catalyst for recovery for psychological and physical illnesses. She has collaborated with medical doctors and other health professionals for workshops and taught undergraduate and graduate courses on the health humanities. She has brought together graduate students in creative writing and medical students to consider how the arts can help them understand and treat addiction. She has spoken to countless groups of addicts and their families. She has worked with psychiatrists, women in residential treatment programs, appeared on the radio, on television, at libraries, at community centers, at art centers, at medical schools, private and public clinics, at museums, schools of pharmacology, and before public school teachers. She has worked with young children, adolescents, and the elderly.
Kate’s poetry and work with the health humanities provide a compelling example of how the arts encourage sympathy with others, including people struggling with pain and devastation. The issues she explores affect people of every race, gender, nationality, and political persuasion. She provides understanding. She provides hope. She articulates what others feel. Her example leads me to ask what can I do? How can we use the richness of literature and literary study to make our country and people’s lives better? I believe that literary study should not be utilitarian or a lever for social engineering; that’s far too simple and reductive. But the humanities and the study of literature—of what it means to be human—can be a catalyst for enlarging people’s perspectives and for understanding one another and ourselves.
All the best,
David M. O’Connell Professor of English
Executive Director, ALSCW
Chair, Department of English
* “An Interview with Kate Daniels,” Five Points: A Journal of Literature and Art, Vol. 18, No. 2, Fall 2017: 132.
** Southbound: Interviews with Southern Poets, Ernest Suarez, ed. University of Missouri Press, 1999: 209.