“‘Henri Cole has become a master poet, with few peers … a central poet of his generation,'” Cole said, reading a quote from internationally acclaimed literary critic Harold Bloom on the flap of his latest book of poems, “Pierce the Skin.”
“It’s funny what they put on these things,” he said.
Cole is a poetry professor in Ohio State’s creative writing program in the Department of English. The road that brought him here in 2008 was dynamic, stretching across four countries and including teaching positions at Reed College and Harvard, Columbia and Yale universities, among others.
He has also been a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a fellow for the National Endowment for the Arts, the executive director for the Academy of American Poets, poetry editor for The New Republic and was nominated Feb. 22 for a 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for “Pierce the Skin.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, brushing off the accolades. “It’s just nice to know that I’m still in the game.”
Cole was born in Fukuoka, Japan, on the Itazuke Air Force base to a French-Armenian mother and an American father in 1956, and was raised in Virginia.
Growing up in such a culturally mixed household, Cole developed a curiosity with language early on in his life.
“I grew up in a household where another language besides English was spoken, so I grew up kind of fascinated with languages,” he said. “I’m not bilingual, but every word had two words for it, you might say.”
That fascination helped lay the foundation of linguistic understanding to use language as a tool to tell multiple stories that would later drive his career.
“Every poem is at least two poems,” he said. “There’s the poem of emotion, that’s been universal and written about for thousands of years, but then there’s the poem of language, and that’s the original imprint of the voice and the choice of words, and that’s the kind of aesthetic art-making impulse that is original.”
In 1978, Cole received his B.A. from the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where he first discovered the art of poetry.
“I was always interested in visual art, but once I took this poetry writing class, I got hooked,” Cole said.
Now, more than 32 years, nearly 20 awards and honors and seven poetry books later, Cole is the one getting students hooked.
“It’s strange, you make these decisions when you’re young, and your whole life is changed as a result of that,” he said. “I guess I never forget that, when I’m around my own students, because a lot of them are getting hooked. I can see that happening.”
In his classes, Cole said he teaches students to write about what they know using their own voice, and to step outside of their comfort zone.
In one exercise, Cole made the students begin a poem with “I grew up” to push them to write about “what they know.”
“‘I grew up in a fractured home,'” he said, flipping through students’ papers. “‘I grew up in a pale yellow house at the foot of a steep hill with a crabapple tree.’ They’re really quite personal.”
Cole said he also has to break students’ misconceptions of what poetry has to be.
“Today we have this thing called rap, which is not completely alien to poetry,” he said. “I think of a poem as an X-ray of self in a moment of being, and a rap song is that too, for whatever culture it is writing about.”
Zak Houston, who is in Cole’s English 566: Advanced writing of poetry, said Cole’s soft-spoken manor and impressive track record make it easy to take criticism.
“I feel very comfortable listening to his advice,” said Houston, a third-year in English and theatre. “What he’s saying is from by and large experience and that’s really sort of comforting, even when the information isn’t comforting.”
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with his M.A. in 1980 and receiving his M.F.A. from Columbia University in 1982, Cole took a string of low-paying jobs in New York City while he wrote poetry, such as writing freelance for travel magazines and working in arts administration, and before teaching his first class, at a reading seminar at Columbia.
Reed College in Portland, Ore., then hired Cole. A year later he was teaching at Harvard.
“I just got in a teaching groove,” he said.
Cole came to OSU in 2008, replacing poet laureate David Citino, who died in 2005, said Richard Hutton, Chair of OSU’s Department of English.
Dutton was the department’s vice chair at the time, and said Cole was on a short list of three potential replacements that they invited to give poetry readings on campus and meet with M.F.A. students.
“He’s very soft-spoken, but when he reads poetry, he captures an audience,” Dutton said. “I think it was pretty much a unanimous decision. This is the kind of charismatic person the department needed.”
Cole said OSU was the first big, public institution at which he has taught, and as a result, has been able to work with a wide range of students with diverse backgrounds, teaching many rural Appalachian students and his first war veteran.
“I have to say, it’s the most rewarding teaching I’ve done,” Cole said.
Dutton said since Cole’s hiring, applications for the M.F.A. program have been increasing.
“He’s clearly a factor,” Dutton said. “To have someone of Henri’s standing, which is genuinely international these days, cannot be understated. People with that kind of standing are relatively rare in the Midwest.”
That international standing has come from Cole’s work, but having lived in Berlin, Paris and Kyoto, has driven that work.
“When other people are speaking other languages around you, you’re in between cultures,” Cole said. “You’re in between languages, you might say. And I think that’s a good place for art. It’s been a god place for me.”
Cole has published seven collections of poems, most recently with “Pierce the Skin” (2010), “Blackbird and Wolf” (2007), “Middle Earth” (2003), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, “The Visible Man” (1998), “The Look of Things” (1995), “The Zoo Wheel of Knowledge” (1989) and “The Marble Queen” (1986).
The prestige that won Cole the position at OSU and his many awards is sometimes a little intimidating for Taylor Micks, a third-year in English, also in English 556.
“It’s really intimidating sometimes when you’ll give a presentation on a poet who was a pretty heavy hitter, and he’s like ‘Oh I know them. We had lunch together on Sunday,'” Micks said. “You take his word very heavily.”
At the end of the quarter, Cole said he tries to leave his students with a little inspiration.
“I tell them to keep going,” he said. “There are so many obstacles and impediments and diversions, so many things to knock you down or distract you. But just keep going.”