From Anatomy Lab to Poetry

PROVO, Utah (March 13, 2014)—In a fascinating mix of literature and science, Kimberly Johnson, associate professor of English at Brigham Young University, parallels her anatomy background with her poetry to explain how scientific processes shaped her understanding of poetry and analyzing its meaning. Johnson was selected as the 2014 recipient of the College of Humanities’ PA Christensen Award.

Johnson started the PA Christensen lecture by showing a fleshy image; similar to one that would be found in an anatomy textbook. She said, “Before I was a literature person, I worked and taught in an anatomy lab, and spent my days dissecting cadavers.”

As a true poet, she captured the audience with her imagery and vivid word choice that called to mind the processes of any biological study. She continued, “I loved the operational systems that were revealed, and the way that each system made sense both on its own and in the context of other systems.

“I loved the way that my scalpel revealed not that the cool and significant stuff was under the surface but that it was indistinguishable from the surface: that everything was significant, that every cell contributed, every fiber played a part.”

To Johnson, these intricacies and processes are what drew her to poetry. She read a poem about her anatomy lab experiences and explained, “The experience this poem describes has everything to do with the process by which we come to understand a thing by digging in and rooting around, but realizes that our efforts to understand sometimes find us separating the pieces from the world, from the urgent messiness of living. There is experiential as well as intellectual meaning to be found in the little stuff, and though it would seem to flout the understanding, nevertheless the very act of engaging, of perceiving and experiencing, provides its own kind of meaningfulness that is not identical with its interpretation but precedes it.”

She cited examples of formally ostentatious poems, where the poem’s subject relates to the physical layout of the words on the page. Johnson said, “Such formal ingenuity should not be regarded as mere ornamentation or as a reinforcement of the real meaning of the poem as expressed in its content.” Rather, she said, the poem “demands that we confront that form as such, that we register the material presence of the poem.”

She explained that often students and scholars relate the specific form to a specific meaning. However, these physical forms remain uncertain. In “The Altar,” by George Herbert, Johnson pointed out that “the referential ends of the poem’s shape remain uncertain: does it depict a Communion table? A classical altar? A deuteronomic altar of unhewn stones? A pillar? The letter I?

“Each of these referents has been justified by readers eager to establish what the form means for the content of the poem. But the very referential uncertainty of the shape indicates the ways in which it resists stable representation even as it projects its own ineffaceable presence as an object,” Johnson said.

“Poetry’s power does not consist, or does not consist solely, in its utility as a conduit or transmitter, pointing endlessly and perhaps vainly to something else, some other elsewhere that is imagined to be of primary importance. Poetry is not about the forever endeavor to compensate for the shortcomings of our experience, it is not an accessory to the real meaning which exists outside itself.”

For Johnson, “What’s at stake in this approach to poetry is precisely the way it reifies and valorizes the material object, the world at hand. Such a view would train the perceptual faculties to apprehend the object at hand—that chair, that light bulb, this page, that person sitting next to you—as inherently consequential and worthy of the full attention of our perceptual faculties for its own sake, and not, in mercenary greed, as an instrument toward some deferred reward.

“Poetry is an art form especially suited to a theology that posits the eternal value of the material not as some illusory snare, nor as some accident to be transcended, but in its materiality,” Johnson said.

“By asserting the presence of presence, poetry makes everything at hand worthy of reverence.”

Johnson closed her remarks by reading one of her own poems, “Book of Hours,” from her soon to be published poetry collection, “Uncommon Prayer.”

Richard Duerden, associate professor of English, said Johnson is “the poet and scholar who you dream to meet but rarely find in universities. Her poetry shows she possesses a wisdom beyond mere human experience, and when she unlocks her word horde, she writes some of the best poetry that’s being written today.”

Dean Rosenberg said Johnson deeply deserves the PA Christensen Award. “She blesses her students, her colleagues and the community.”

—Stephanie Bahr Bentley BA’ English ’14