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Ocean Vuong and the Persistent Power of Poetry

By: Timothy Quinn

Chief Academic Officer and Dean of Faculty

In early November, Miss Porter’s School was visited by best-selling poet and MacArthur Fellow Ocean Vuong. The event was much anticipated by the school community. Students had read his work over the summer—9th and 10th grade students read his first book of poems, “Night Sky with Exit Wounds,” and 11th and 12th graders read his most recent collection, “Time is a Mother.” Students continued to engage with his work throughout the fall, and one of the term’s highlights for me was the book group I hosted at my home for students and faculty who wished to discuss Vuong’s novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.” Sitting around the fireplace in an old home chatting with students about literature was one of those quintessential boarding school moments I cherish. There was even an Ocean Vuong hype club that got the community pumped up for his visit.  

To be honest, I don’t know of many schools where a visiting poet would generate so much excitement. In part, this is due to the intellectual curiosity of our students at Miss Porter’s, of which I am proud. But in this particular case, it was because a group of students themselves identified Vuong as the writer they selected to speak with our community. They took the initiative to reach out to his agent and begin the process of bringing him to campus. Despite this enthusiasm, I was still a bit apprehensive. I have a deep appreciation for Vuong’s work, but much of his poetry can be enigmatic for a veteran literature teacher like myself, let alone a 15-year-old kid, no matter how curious and sophisticated. Would he read poems the students understood and appreciated? Would he connect with the audience? Worst of all, would the students be bored? 

My anxiety proved to be unfounded. The evening was pure magic.  

Students and faculty alike were enraptured as Vuong read to us in a voice that was at the same time quiet and calm, yet powerful and rich with emotion. Images from his poems came to life and seemed to fill the room with a profundity that simply cannot be captured through prose.

In “Beautiful Short Loser” he warned,

Stand back, I’m a loser on a winning streak.

I’ve got your wedding dress on backward, playing air guitar in these streets… 

before closing the poem by explaining, 

Because what I did with my one short beautiful life –

was lose it 

on a winning streak.

In “Woodworking at the End of the World” he shared this epiphany:

Then it came to me, my life. I remembered my life

The way an ax handle, mid-swing, remembers the tree.

& I was free. 

Three of Ocean Vuong's books of poetry
Three of Ocean Vuong’s books of poetry

Perhaps even more captivating than Vuong’s reading of his poems was the Q & A session with students. If his poems showed his artistry, his answers to the questions revealed his true genius. His discussion of poetry and the creative process revealed the countless hours of reading he had done in order to understand the great poets who came before him from Homer to Frank O’Hara, to name just two influences he referenced. Creativity is hard work, and it involves failure after failure, he explained, but when you are passionate about something, you push through. As Vuong shared stories of his life’s journey and ruminated on the human experience, wisdom seemed to drip from his every word, and when he was done, the students would not leave.  About 100 of them waited in line to have their books signed or to just say hello and thank him for sharing his brilliance. Mr. Vuong was more than gracious with these students and his time. 

The evening revealed that you don’t have to be a poet to think and behave like one. Ultimately, greater poets are great noticers. Whether it is a “certain slant of light,” in the words of Emily Dickinson, or “a world in a grain of sand” in the words of William Blake, poets notice the things that most other humans do not. They see things from different angles, they see new perspectives, they see what is beneath the surface, and in sharing these “noticings” they help us all toward a deeper understanding of life.  

The idea that stuck with me most was Vuong’s skepticism about the concept of truth coupled with his abiding belief that there is such a thing as honesty. Being removed from the politics and polemic that so dominate contemporary discourse, poets are able to speak honestly in ways that others either cannot or will not. While commentators in the news and on social media fight to prove that they know the truth, often in ways that are dissembling and disingenuous, poets continue to notice and to share what really matters. If we are willing to turn off the cable news, close the TikTok app and open a volume of poetry, much will be revealed.

At a moment when the death of the humanities and lack of appreciation for art seem to be daily headlines, thinkers such as Ocean Vuong and the reception he received at Miss Porter’s give me hope… and not just for the humanities and the arts, but for a better world.