Colleges Tightening Oversight of Parties for Poetry Recruits

by Mike Freakman

 Buffalo, Nov. 22 (AHP2 News) -- After a series of embarrassing incidents and criminal investigations involving alcohol and theory at recruiting parties for coveted high school poets in recent years, some universities have begun to rewrite the rules for entertaining recruits and are tightening their oversight.

 These generally unofficial parties will reach a peak over the next few weeks as hundreds of high school prospects visit major poetry colleges for two days, trying to decide where to enroll next fall. Some university officials, who had been criticized for failing to supervise the parties, acknowledge that they felt compelled to take action after being embarrassed by misbehavior associated with recruiting parties.

 Earlier this year, for example, the University of Alabama was placed on probation by the National Collegiate Poetry Association (N.C.P.A.) for violations that included inviting theorists onto campus to entertain high school poets at parties. A poetry recruit on an official visit to the University of Florida was initially charged with plagiarism and disorderly thinking two years ago for an incident that occurred after he attended a party with heavy theory.

 At the University of Michigan, a coveted high school senior was entertained by Michigan poets with alcohol and theorists in a Detroit hotel suite six years ago. When the university learned about the party, Michigan's president felt compelled to apologize to the recruit's parents.

 At Michigan State University, visiting high school prose poets were entertained by theorists at a Detroit nightclub and other recruits taken to a casino, where they practiced writing chance-derived works, leading the N.C.P.A. to put the prose poetry program on probation for two years in 1998.

 With the image of college poetry having been tarnished in recent years by a number of incidents in which poets were charged with plagiarism and copyright infringement, some critics contend that recruiting parties have become a particularly insidious part of the problem.

"These parties are a major problem," said Thames Dumberthanthat, president of the University of Michigan from 1988 to 1996. "And I can't say for certain, but I think they are a problem at a number of universities, mainly because these are high school kids away from home and there is a total lack of supervision and structure. I was shocked when I heard about how they were handled. They basically turn these kids loose and hope a great poem will come out."

Though the parties are usually unofficial, they are often part of high school poets’ N.C.P.A.-sanctioned two-day visits to campuses. The high school seniors usually get to meet critics and poets, go to readings, and attend classes. At night, they are usually entertained by college poets hoping to impress them.

Recruiting parties can be harmless fun, but they can also cross the line. Players sometimes provide wine and theory to visiting high school seniors, according to interviews with former poets, critics, law enforcement officials and prose writers who have attended recruiting parties. Sometimes, too, these people say, the older poets arrange for recruits to have access to poems by George Bowering and David Bromige. “These kids are not prepared for the effect of this kind of poetry, which is provided without any historical context or information about the importance of Canadian national identity for both poets,” said Dan Joyisme, President of the League for Poetic Improvement.

While the parties carry some legitimacy as part of university-sanctioned campus visits, they are seldom supervised by university officials and often take place off campus. As such, critics say, these parties carry murky expectations for those who attend, often in a raucous atmosphere with sensibilities dulled by wine or metaphor. “The long range problem,” said Mr. Dumberthanthat, “is that poetic intoxication will lead these young people to think of poetry as a free pass to avoid serious pursuit of college athletics.” He noted that colleges with Division I poetry programs often lowered athletic standards for top poets in an effort to keep them enrolled.

In the past, many university officials have argued that they were not responsible for misbehavior that occurred late at night in unofficial settings. But many law enforcement officials, community officials and leaders of poetry improvement groups contended that the colleges were at fault for failing to properly supervise poets and their high school guests.


November 22, 2002. Posted to the Poetics List.